Author Archives

Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

Can an Old Satire, Reborn, Survive the New Political Climate?

The Virginia Quarterly Review has a personal essay by Meghan Daum in which she discusses the recent reissue of her 2003 debut novel, The Quality of Life Report. Daum is nervous about the book’s reception the second time around. Fourteen years after publication, the book is entering a different kind of political climate: A satire about a New York television reporter who moves to the midwest, it pokes fun at overly sensitive liberals, coastal elites, and P.C. culture, and makes jokes about gender, race, and class.

The book can be buffoonish and broad (for better or worse, I was reading a lot of John Irving the time) but I’ve never in my life had so much fun writing anything. I remember sitting in my chair during those years and at times practically falling out of it from laughing out loud. This is not a regular feature of my creative process.

Last year, after not having looked at the book for a very long time, I reread it and found myself laughing all over again. I also found myself utterly shocked by some of the content. Though the reviews back in 2003 had been mostly positive and, moreover, made little if any mention of the risky humor around things like race, class, and gender (or the political undertones of sexually irrepressible farm animals) the humor seemed to me by today’s standards to be something bordering on unacceptable. Were the novel to be published for the first time today (and I suspect it might not be) there’s a good chance it would be the target of such excoriation on social media and elsewhere that its fundamental message—that liberals can be the most illiberal of all, just as urban coastal types can be the most provincial—would be dismissed as irrelevant, if not lost altogether.

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‘Women and Girls Were Not Jumping Up and Down to be Interviewed’: Rukmini Callamichi on Interviewing ISIS Sex Slaves

Rukmini Callimachi

Columbia Journalism Review has an as-told-to account of New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s experience reporting a page-one story that ran in March of 2016, which bore the headline “To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control.” Callimachi talks to CJR‘s Elon Green about various aspects of getting the story, spending time with the victims, and earning their trust.

Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.

Callimachi also discusses her process as a writer.

I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love — moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment — it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.

I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.

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How Ayana Mathis Came to Own Her Ambition

Guernica has an essay by novelist Ayana Mathis about owning one’s writing ambitions, despite never really having felt entitled to them. In this excerpt from Double Bind: Women on Ambitionan anthology edited by Robin Romm, Mathis’s opens with an experience beyond her wildest dreams: A phone call from Oprah Winfrey, who tells Mathis her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a pick for Oprah’s Book Club. From there Mathis delves into the things that had held her back from reaching for great achievement, and sometimes still do: Her mother and grandparents stressing the importance of being reserved and never seeming hungry. The messages she received as a young black girl about not being deserving were often the opposite of what was promised to the much more privileged “lean-in crowd.”

Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: the legitimization of desires. In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly forty years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions? This is not a question for the lean-in crowd. That conception, of leaning in, useful though it may be to some, is the province of the entitled classes. Women who come to the big boy’s table with education and privilege; perhaps just not quite enough to make more money, to have more power, to be more successful. This is an inadequate model that implies that the old hierarchies, the old systems of inclusion and exclusion, the old distribution of power and wealth are perfectly acceptable, it’s just that the ladies should be sitting at the big table too. I and mine are not lean-in women. Mine is a long and illustrious heritage of elegant survivalists and creative realists. We made our way without a road map, or even a road, as is the case for those of us who were, by virtue of race and class and gender, barred from the paths to success. We have dreams aplenty, some realized and some not, but the manifestation of our ambitions is not a given. It isn’t even a given that we will recognize our right to have them.

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‘I Knew From the Get-Go it Should be Shirley MacLaine’: George Hodgman on Casting ‘Bettyville’ for TV

For St. Louis Magazine, Jeannette Cooperman spends some time with George Hodgman — in both St. Louis and Hodgman’s native Paris, Missouri, where he returned from New York a few years ago to care for his dying mother and wrote the bestselling memoir, Bettyville, about it. The occasion for the profile is the news that Paramount TV has optioned the book for a “dramedy,” with Matthew Broderick portraying Hodgman and Shirley MacLaine playing his charismatic mother.

I ask whether he likes the idea of Matthew Broderick playing him. “To be true to me, it should be someone who is much more of a sex symbol,” he deadpans. “I was thinking Ryan Gosling. But I’m much more worried about what the character is going to do than who is going to play him. In the screenplay, they had me mowing the lawn in my mother’s sunhat and singing ‘Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little’ from The Music Man. I thought I was going to have a relapse.”

The casting call that really interested him was for the woman who’d play Betty. “I knew from the get-go that it should be Shirley MacLaine. When I was in fourth grade, we went to New York. We stayed at the Hotel Dixie—there was a Shirley Temple drag queen show in the lobby—and outside there was one of those huge billboards, Shirley with her purse thrown over her shoulder as Sweet Charity. We went to the show, and for years, if something went wrong, I’d come home and throw my lunchbox on the table and say, ‘I’ve got to get out of the Fandango Dance Palace.’”

Now, he’s the star. All this unexpected furor over his poignant, funny, lyrically written book must be a rush?

“I’ve only been waiting 50 years to be interviewed. When I was 5, I was talking to Barbara Walters about my marital difficulties.”

Cooperman also asks Hodgman about his future plans now that his mother is gone — whether he plans to stay in Paris, move to St. Louis, or return to New York — and he’s not sure. He’s got mixed feelings about New York, something he touched on when I spoke with him for Longreads in April of 2015.

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‘BRB, Killing ISIS Guys’: An American Bro in Syria

At New York Magazine, Reeves Wiedeman profiles Brace Belden, aka @PissPigGranddad , a Jewish, 27-year-old anarchist, provocateur, and former punk musician from San Francisco who is just finishing six months in Syria fighting against ISIS with Kurdish rebels. Belden—who flew to Iraq and had himself smuggled into Syria because he felt an urgent need to take action—is conflicted about becoming visible within the conflict

Belden was an unlikely recruit. He had spent most of the previous decade working in flower shops in the Bay Area and had LIFE STINKS / I LIKE THE KINKS tattooed on his left bicep. The Kurds in his tabor had taken to calling Western volunteers by their nearest celebrity doppelgängers, which made Belden, who is Jewish, with floppy brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, glad that they hadn’t noticed any resemblance to Woody Allen — nor had they seen the Annie Hall parody, Annie Crawl, that Belden had posted online several months earlier, in which he played Allen’s character as if he were a dog. Instead, the Kurds called him “Mr. Bean.”

But by the time we spoke, Belden had become — at least to American leftists — a prominent figure in the Syrian Civil War, to his surprise as much as anyone else’s, thanks to the humorous and often crass dispatches he posted to Twitter under the handle @PissPigGranddad: photos of himself giving a peace sign in front of a tank or holding a grenade with a cigarette dangling from his lips, jokes about how difficult it was to find a place to masturbate, and occasional analysis of the political and military situation. Belden, who had gone from a few hundred followers before leaving San Francisco to more than 33,000 by the end of March, was less the war’s George Orwell than its digital Hunter S. Thompson. “Sorry I haven’t tweeted I’ve been (lowers shattered sunglasses revealing empty, bleeding eye sockets) killing ISIS guys,” he wrote, after returning from his first trip to the front.

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‘I Thought, Well, We’ll See What Happens!’: Iconic Editor Nan Talese on Her Marriage and Career

For Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz profiles 83-year-old iconic editor Nan Talese, who rose through the ranks of one publishing house after another before being given her own eponymous imprint at Doubleday in 1990. Aside from being one of the most powerful women in publishing, Talese is also known as one-half of one of the most interesting and curious marriages in recent history. One of the underpinnings of her union with famously non-monogamous New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese is a pledge she made to him early on that she wouldn’t ever impinge on his “freedom”—an agreement that allowed him to have many affairs, some supposedly in the name of “research” for his book about the loosening of sexual mores in the free love era. The profile comes just as Gay plans to write a book about their marriage.

In 1981, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, something discomfiting was starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to shift. Gay’s book was critically panned, not for the substance, which reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its author. “What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked off, all that,” says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of the writers group PEN, he’d been on the verge of becoming its next president. But in light of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the women of PEN revolted, and he resigned. Nan’s career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In 1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the old-line publishing company based in Boston; she’d commute there while still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least partially tied to his downfall. “She started getting a lot of publicity about Thy Neighbor’s Wife . . . . What about this guy’s wife? This guy’s wife is Nan Talese. She’s this terrific, revered editor, and she’s married to this disgusting guy.”

But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay’s champion, the power shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She defended him publicly, as she does today. “I think most of the press told more about the reporters than it did about Gay,” she says. And so, for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic entanglements on the road. “I don’t want to degrade people by representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won’t,” says Gay.

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‘Dance Me to the End of Love’: Joan Juliet Buck on Her Platonic Friendship with Almost-Lover Leonard Cohen

At Harper’s Bazaar, Joan Juliet Buck, a past editor of Paris Vogue and author of the new memoir, The Price of Illusion, has an essay about how her grandmother’s regrets affected Buck’s own romantic choices. As she was approaching her 70s, her grandmother admitted that if she had it to do all over again, she’d have been “fast,” which is to say “loose,” as opposed to being married to one man her whole life. Buck, who came of age in the 60s, considered her grandmother’s regrets and decided she didn’t want to be tied down — a choice that was much more radical then than it might be now.

While Buck was married for a few years, mostly she wasn’t — creating space not only for many love affairs, but also close friendships with men. In her early twenties, Buck met singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen and almost accepted his invitation to join him on a Greek isle. Ultimately she turned him down; years later, the two became close friends. In the essay, Buck admits regretting turning down the initial invitation, and recalls spending time with Cohen, who passed away last November.

I married a fellow journalist, a fine writer named John Heilpern. A script took him to Los Angeles in 1978, and I joined him at the Chateau Marmont, where Leonard Cohen came back into my life. The man whose voice sang what I couldn’t say became a close friend; when John was away, and he was away often, I lay on the bed in Leonard’s room a few floors below ours, chastely discussing the mysteries of love through the night. I found my voice with him. We traded stories and smoked cigarettes; he called it “gossiping about the moral universe.”

After John and I divorced, Leonard became an even closer friend. It had been 10 years since we’d met, and by then we knew each other too well for mutual seduction to work. It was richer to examine love together than to play at it; this was the complicity I’d been waiting for. I did my game of being fast with other men; Leonard fell in love with other women, most deeply with the photographer Dominique Issermann. Now we could stay up all night talking: in New York, on the floor of his suite at the still-shabby Royalton Hotel while his children slept next door; in Paris, where I lived in a garret to finish my second novel. Sometimes we discussed his broken heart, sometimes mine. He’d consider all the evidence, and conclude, a little too often for my taste, “He doesn’t love you, sweetheart.” He’d leaven the verdict with a cheery, “It’s all a vale of tears,” and off we’d go somewhere dark to eat something Japanese.

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‘Pretend I’m Dead’ Author Jen Beagin Wins 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction

The 2017 Whiting Awards honorees have been announced. Among the winners is Pretend I’m Dead, a novel by Jen Beagin, which has been among my favorite titles from Emily Books. Every time a friend or colleague seeks recommendations for a novel that has both humor and heart, I refer them to this book about Mona, a young woman cleaning houses for a living and volunteering at a needle exchange program.

The Paris Review has a brief excerpt from the beginning of the book, when Mona has become hung up on a needle exchange client she calls “Mr. Disgusting.”

For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.

A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.

She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck.

Other honorees for the prize, which recognizes “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” include:

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What Does It Mean to Be Jewish in Trump’s America?

At Vice, Eve Peyser has an essay I strongly identify with about belatedly embracing her Jewish identity. Raised by atheist parents in New York City and educated at Oberlin, Peyser more comfortably identified as a liberal, and was reluctant to be lumped in with certain kinds of Jews—rich, entitled, Zionist, anti-Palestinian. Recently, though, the rise in antisemitism ushered in by the new administration—plus personal attacks by racist online trolls—have prompted Peyser to analyze how she’s distanced herself from her heritage, re-evaluate what it means to be Jewish, and take pride in owning it.

A recent sunny afternoon, my best friend Beck (a fellow secular New York City Jew, and college classmate) and I went for a walk to a Jewish cemetery near my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. The grid of tombstones and mausoleums engraved with Jewish names—the sort of place that has been vandalized recently—got us talking about why it took so long for us to feel OK with (or even proud of) our heritage.

Both of us had felt the same shame at times, heard the same things. Beck remembered a time in Oberlin when a leftist activist remarked on her big, Jewish nose—a shockingly casual bit of bigotry given how “woke” our little bubble was. We had both seen a Facebook post from a former classmate of ours who quoted a pamphlet called “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” a 32-page guide for leftist activists on how to incorporate fighting anti-Semitism within their movement. In explaining how anti-Semitism functions and differs from other forms of racism, the zine perfectly addressed the complicated identity of white Jews, like myself:

“Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise ‘at the bottom.’ Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been ‘optional’ features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target of people’s rage.”

It also notes that part of the reason we’re so willing to dismiss anti-Semitism is because it moves in cycles—in the aftermath of oppression, Jews are often allowed to blend in again—and atrocities like the Holocaust seem like ancient history.

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‘Every Watch Geek Has an Origin Story’

watches and watch parts, on a black background

Novelist and memoirist Gary Shteyngart has an essay in The New Yorker about his growing obsession with high-ticket mechanical wristwatches, a fixation that escalated throughout the 2016 Presidential race and peaked around the inauguration. Something about the reliability and precision of German and Swiss ticking timepieces helps quell Shteyngart’s growing anxiety; delving into his expensive new hobby, he’s able to divert his attention away from his growing fears and the residual unrest from his childhood as a Jewish refugee from Russia.

Along the way, he visits watch factories in Germany, the offices of the online publications Hodinkee and TimeZone, the Horological Society of New York, and other exclusive halls where his fellow watch enthusiasts gather.

As the election approached, I started going to meetings of the Horological Society of New York. On the streets of Manhattan, I never have any idea which celebrity is which—they all seem to be Matt Damon—but at the Horological Society I could identify all my new heroes, many with full, Portlandian beards, across the vast hall of the library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, in midtown, while they waited in line for their free coffee and Royal Dansk butter cookies. There was the nattily dressed Kiran Shekar—yes, the Kiran Shekar, noted collector, author, and proprietor of the independent watch purveyor Contrapante. I ran over to introduce myself and a few moments later he gave me his watch to hold, and a few weeks later he arranged for me to attend the secret RedBar, a meeting of the watch elect, at a bar in Koreatown. You need a regular to invite you to a meeting, and the idea that I could be welcomed into this exclusive world kept me from sleeping. I lay in bed practicing what I might say about “perlage,” “three-quarter plates,” and the rare lapis-lazuli dials on some seventies Rolex Datejusts.

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