Category Archives: Books

How a Journalist Uncovered the True Identity of Jihadi John

Souad Mekhennet I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad | Henry Holt & Company | June 2017 | 19 minutes (5,112 words) 

Below is an excerpt from I Was Told to Come Alone, by Souad Mekhennet. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

The same masked man always spoke first in the beheading videos.

He was known as Jihadi John, a name given to him by former hostages who reported that he and three other ISIS guards came from the United Kingdom.

The hostages called them “the Beatles,” and Jihadi John was their most prominent member.

Jihadi_John

Jihadi John. Via Wikimedia.

*

I tell you, Souad, this man’s story is different.

About a week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, while I was still in Paris, I got a call from Peter Finn. He wanted me to talk to another Post reporter, Adam Goldman, who was trying to identify the “the Beatles.”

Adam’s booming voice and thick New York accent reminded me of a character from a detective movie. He told me he’d heard that Jihadi John was of Yemeni descent, that his first name was Mohammed, and that he came from East London. He asked if I had good contacts in the Yemeni community in London. Not exactly, I told him, but I did have sources among radical Muslims there. I had reported in London and its suburbs after the transit attacks of 2005, and I’d interviewed Omar Bakri, a prominent British Islamist cleric, and some others who didn’t often talk to reporters. I told Adam I’d ask around.

I made some calls, but no one wanted to talk on the phone, so I flew to London. Once there, I reached out to ISIS and Al Qaeda supporters, jihadi recruiters, and a handful of Bakri’s former students. The identities of “the Beatles” was a hot topic around London, I learned. Some of my sources told me that even if they knew who the men were, they wouldn’t tell me for fear of being punished as collaborators or supporters, since they hadn’t shared their information with the police.

One of my sources was a bit older and lived outside the city. He had been involved with a couple of high-level Al Qaeda operatives and was seen as a sort of godfather by many radical young men in and around London. The man said he’d heard rumors about Jihadi John, and he thought he might have met him before he left to join ISIS. Read more…

Dear Chief Justice John Roberts: Our Country Has Not Changed

Rescue workers aiding victims of the car attack in Charlottesville.

President Trump’s embrace of racist extremism is not just troubling for our country in the present moment, it’s even scarier when you consider the politicos who see it as a winning campaign strategy for 2018 and beyond. Picture all the baby Trumps mimicking their grotesque idol, and weep for our republic.

To understand this extremism, and to fight it, we must return to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The killing in Charlottesville, the violent outbursts by emboldened white supremacists, and Trump’s utter failure to condemn domestic terrorism, offers yet another chance to reflect on how we got here. We can start with recent Supreme Court history, when it struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which allowed nine, mostly Southern states, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “our country has changed,” and he argued that many of the “extraordinary measures” in the Voting Rights Act were no longer justified.

Yet here we are in 2017: camouflaged racists with semiautomatic weapons marched through Charlottesville, and one of them plowed his car through a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

On Sunday, a discussion began on Twitter as to whether Roberts (and Justice Anthony Kennedy) would like to revisit their decision.

Ari Berman’s outstanding 2015 book Give Us the Ballot offers a deep history of voter suppression in the United States, and it makes clear that we must fight the rights for all Americans to vote if we are to ever take the country back from a President and a party that winks at the white supremacy.

Republicans may “privately wince” at Trump’s moral failure, but their actions to disenfranchise voters lit the torches in Charlottesville. They fostered an environment where the white vote matters more, and convinced those voters they are under attack from people who don’t look like them. In his book, Berman explains that Obama’s 2008 election led to a spate of new, restrictive state voting laws:

In 2011 and 2012, 180 new voting restrictions were introduced in forty-one states, with twenty-seven new laws taking effect in nineteen states, nearly all of them controlled by Republicans. The right to vote had become deeply politicized. The country hadn’t seen anything like it since the end of Reconstruction, when every southern state placed severe limits on the franchise.

The election of the first black president and the resurrection of new barriers to the ballot box were not a coincidence. “The proposal of restrictive voter-access legislation has been substantially more likely to occur where African-Americans are concentrated and both minorities and low-income individuals have begun turning out at the polls more frequently,” reported a study from the University of Massachusetts–Boston.

“As minorities grow in the political process, it’s in the interest of one of the parties to tamp down voter turnout,” said Mel Watt. “It’s the same system that other people went through when there were poll taxes and literacy tests. This is just another iteration of that.”

Before 2010, only Indiana, Georgia, and Missouri had passed strict voter ID laws. Nine states controlled by Republicans adopted them following the 2010 election: Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The accelerated push for voter ID laws didn’t emerge from nowhere. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, the tart-tongued first director of the Heritage Foundation, convened a gathering of fifteen thousand evangelical Christians for Ronald Reagan. Acolytes described Weyrich as “the Lenin of social conservatism.” He said in his speech: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

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Whose Fault Was Dunkirk?

Lynne Olson | Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War | Random House | April 2017 | 15 minutes (3,983 words) 

Below is an excerpt from Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.

Winston Churchill arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay on the afternoon of May 16 and saw “utter dejection written on every face” of the officials with whom he met. In the gardens outside, clouds of smoke billowed up from bonfires stoked by official documents that government workers were heaping on the flames.

The French military leaders summarized for Churchill the disastrous news of the previous four days: the German breakthrough at the Meuse and the onrush of tanks and troops “at unheard-of speed” toward the northern French towns of Amiens and Arras. When Churchill asked about plans for a counterattack by reserve forces, General Gamelin shrugged and shook his head. “There are none,” he said. Churchill was speechless: no reserves and no counterattack? How could that be? Gamelin’s terse response, Churchill wrote later, was “one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

The British prime minister’s shock and confusion, his failure to grasp the speed and immensity of the German onslaught, were no different from the dazed reactions of French and British officers and troops in the field. Years later, General Alan Brooke would write dismissively, “Although there were plenty of Frenchmen ready to die for their country, their leaders had completely failed to prepare and organize them to resist the blitzkrieg.” Brooke didn’t mention that he and his fellow British commanders were as guilty as their French counterparts in that regard—a point repeatedly made by General Bernard Law Montgomery, a subordinate of Brooke’s in France. In his diary of the campaign, Montgomery, who commanded a British division in the battle, was scathingly critical of General John Gort, the British Expeditionary Force commander. Later Montgomery would write, “We had only ourselves to blame for the disasters which early overtook us in the field when fighting began in 1940.”

Trained for static defensive warfare, the Allied military simply did not know how to react when the blitzkrieg—“this inhuman monster which had already flattened half of Europe,” in the words of an American observer—burst upon them. Coordination and communication between the French and British armies broke down almost immediately; within a few days, most phone and supply lines had been cut, and the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function. The only way army commanders could communicate was through personal visits.

While French and British units functioned without information or orders, their tanks and aircraft were running out of fuel and ammunition. An RAF pilot called the situation “a complete and utter shambles”; a British Army officer wrote in his diary, “This is like some ridiculous nightmare.” Back in London, Churchill told one of his secretaries, “In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.” Read more…

The Brief Career and Self-Imposed Exile of Jutta Hipp, Jazz Pianist

Aaron Gilbreath | This Is: Essays on Jazz | Outpost19 | August 2017 | 21 minutes (5,900 words)

In 1960, four years after the venerable Blue Note Records signed pianist Jutta Hipp to their label, she stopped performing music entirely. Back in her native Germany, Hipp’s swinging, percussive style had earned her the title of Europe’s First Lady of Jazz. When she’d moved to New York in 1955, she started working at a garment factory in Queens to supplement her recording and performing income. She played clubs around the City. She toured. Then, with six albums to her name and no official explanation, she quit. She never performed publicly again, and she told so few people about her life in music that most of her factory coworkers and friends only discovered it from her obituary. For the next forty-one years, Jutta patched garments for a living, painted, drew and took photos for pleasure, all while royalties accrued on Blue Note’s books.

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Billy Bragg: Skiffle Songs Are Railroad Songs

Musicians Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.

“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.

There is a book; of course there is, it’s called Roots, Radicals and Rockers How Skiffle Changed the World.  The Paris Review talked with Billy Bragg about the book, skiffle, the history of music, and duck jokes. Really.

I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.

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The War on Drugs Is a War on Women of Color

Andrea Ritchie | Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color | Beacon Press | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,744 words) 

Below is an excerpt from Invisible No More, by Andrea Ritchie. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

The war on drugs has become a largely unannounced war on women, particularly women of color.

Drug laws and their enforcement in the United States have always been a deeply racialized project. In 1875, San Francisco passed the country’s first drug law criminalizing “opium dens” associated with Chinese immigrants, though opium was otherwise widely available and was used by white Americans in a variety of forms. Cocaine regulation at the turn of the twentieth century was colored by racial insecurities manifesting in myths that cocaine made Black people shoot better, rendered them impervious to bullets, and increased the likelihood that Black men would attack white women. Increasing criminalization of marijuana use during the early twentieth century was similarly premised on racialized stereotypes targeting Mexican immigrants, fears of racial mixing, and suppression of political dissent.

The “war on drugs,” officially declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, has come to refer to police practices that involve stopping and searching people who fit the “profile” of drug users or couriers on the nation’s highways, buses, trains, and planes; saturation of particular neighborhoods (almost entirely low-income communities of color) with law enforcement officers charged with finding drugs in any quantity through widespread “stop and frisk” activities; no-knock warrants, surveillance, undercover operations, and highly militarized drug raids conducted by SWAT teams. It also includes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions, which contribute to mass incarceration, and a range of punitive measures aimed at individuals with drug convictions.

Feminist criminologists assert, “The war on drugs has become a largely unannounced war on women, particularly women of color.” According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “Drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, yet black and Latina women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white women.” Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women make up a grossly disproportionate share of women incarcerated for drug offenses, even though whites are nearly five times as likely as Blacks to use marijuana and three times as likely as Blacks to have used crack. According to sociologist Luana Ross, although Native Americans make up 6 percent of the total population of Montana, they are approximately 25 percent of the female prison population. These disparities are partially explained by incarceration for drug offenses. These statistics are not just products of targeting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities; they are consequences of focusing on women of color in particular. From 2010 to 2014, women’s drug arrests increased by 9 percent while men’s decreased by 7.5 percent. These disparities were even starker at the height of the drug war. Between 1986 and 1995, arrests of adult women for drug abuse violations increased by 91.1 percent compared to 53.8 percent for men.

However, there continues to be very little information about the everyday police encounters that lead to drug arrests and produce racial disparities in women’s prisons. For instance, less well known in Sandra Bland’s case is the fact that before her fateful July 2015 traffic stop, she was twice arrested and charged for possession of small amounts of marijuana. After her first arrest a $500 fine was imposed. After the second, she served thirty days in Harris County jail, a facility criticized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for its unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Read more…

The Arsonist Was Like a Ghost

Monica Hesse | American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land | LiverightAugust 2017 | 17 minutes (4,100 words) 

In the middle of the night on December 15, 2012, Lois Gomez sat up in bed. She thought she heard something. She listened. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she hadn’t heard anything. She went to the kitchen for a drink of water. It was two or three in the morning, only a few hours before her shift at Perdue and her husband’s shift at Tyson. Now she definitely heard something. A banging on her front door — which in itself was odd; friends and family knew they always used the side entrance — and someone yelling: “Your garage is on fire! I’ve already called 911!”

She stood frozen in the kitchen trying to process the information. Christmas lights, she thought. Her outdoor Christmas lights were halfway up, but she and her husband had recently decided to visit his family in Texas for the holiday and she’d been trying to figure out whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage, which was now on fire. Christmas lights, along with the expensive music equipment for her son’s rock band.

It had been a rough couple of months. For one thing, she wasn’t getting along with her next-door neighbors. She’d been close with the woman who’d owned that house before, Susan Bundick. They brought each other dinner sometimes, or stood and chatted in their backyards. But one Sunday afternoon, Lois was outside emptying the aboveground backyard pool to close out the summer season, and she saw the police were at Susan’s house. They told Lois her neighbor had died. Now, Susan’s daughter lived in her mother’s old house and things weren’t as pleasant. Tonya was fine, kept to herself, but Lois had a few run-ins with Tonya’s new boyfriend, a squirrelly redheaded guy whose name she didn’t know. He’d done a few little things, like dumping a bunch of branches on their lawn instead of disposing of them like he was supposed to. Once he’d accused her of making racial slurs against Tonya’s kids. The accusation was ridiculous. Lois’s husband was from Mexico, and her four grandchildren were partly black.

She’d also been having nightmares about the arsonist. In one dream, she went into her kitchen late at night and saw someone racing through the yard, an intruder wearing dark-colored sweat pants and a hoodie. “What are you doing?” she called. The figure turned and looked at her but she still couldn’t see his face, and he eventually disappeared behind her detached garage. She woke up and realized it wasn’t real.

This night wasn’t a dream, though.

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Processing Clues About a Friend’s True Identity to Make Sense of Her Murder

New York Magazine has an excerpt of The Hot One: a Memoir of Friendship, Sex and Murder, by Carolyn Murnick.

Murnick recalls learning in 2001 that her childhood best friend, Ashley Ellerin — an ex-girlfriend of Ashton Kutcher’s — had been stabbed to death at 22 in L.A. Ellerin had visited Murnick at college in New York just eight months before. During that visit, Murnick got a peek into the fast life Ellerin had been hiding from her parents and others who’d been close to her growing up.

On our walk from the subway across 110th Street toward my apartment, she told me that her part-time job at Sephora was just something she held on to so her parents would stay off her back. Actually, she was spending more of her time — and making a lot more money — at a strip club, working bachelor parties and pole dancing for tips; occasionally there were arrangements that happened in hotels, too. She relayed the information with the same casual remove she had used to give the waiter her order at lunch: The chopped chicken salad, no onions, honey-mustard dressing on the side.

You had to have a manicure and pedicure every week, she was saying, which was kind of a drag, but even a tiny chip in your nail polish could ruin the fantasy. She usually did light colors or French; once she had put baby blue on her toes and it hadn’t gone over well. Tanning too — religiously. Men expected you to be a certain way, and attempting to work around that was more trouble than it was worth.

I tried to appear blasé, to take it in stride, but what I really felt was utter confusion. Was I angry at her? Was she telling me this to brag? Should I be wearing my concerned hat now, or would that be unfairly judgmental? I hadn’t yet seen any comparable life developments in a friend and didn’t know what it all meant, for either of us or the two of us. Maybe this was good, cool, right — To each her own? You go, girl? — and I was the one with a problem, a prude. Did everything make sense now, or did it all make even less sense than before?

We rounded the corner onto Amsterdam Avenue. Ashley’s confessions were picking up speed — actors, crystal meth, the lease to her car being paid for by some guy in his 50s, how much she charged for an hour. She talked of martinis and pills and being on top during sex; the guys always told you they wanted you to go as slow as possible, but she still found ways to get through it quickly. It was almost as if she needed to get everything out before we entered my apartment, an unmasking in public so we could be on the same page in private.

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‘Trump Wouldn’t Be President Without the Neoliberalization of New York City’

Sari Botton | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)

In 2007, when a writer going by the pseudonym of “Jeremiah Moss” launched the blog Vanishing New York lamenting the closure of one iconic small business after another due to rapidly escalating rents, I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t long after, though, that I started to notice some major publications dismissing Moss as cranky, overly nostalgic, and naive about the inevitabilities of gentrification. I remember disagreeing with those assessments, and wondering whether I was missing something, or the writers of those pieces were.

It wasn’t until I read Moss’s new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, that I fully put it together: the difference between those writers and me was that I had lost my place in New York City. In 2005, when I was evicted from my apartment in the East Village so that a famous filmmaker could pay four times my rent, my foothold there, well, vanished. As a casualty myself of New York’s rising rents, I heard Moss’s message loud and clear.

Now I’m living in Kingston, New York, where, as was entirely predictable to me, a new tidal wave of what Moss calls “hyper-gentrification” threatens to displace me once again.

Last week I met with Moss — who recently came out from under cover in a New Yorker profile as psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury — at a Cafe in the East Village, to talk about his book (we have an excerpt), and how artists and creatives like me can hang on, and play a different role, when outside money starts rolling in to the depressed areas we move to.

So, should I be talking to you as Griffin or Jeremiah?

I think Jeremiah.

Is the main reason you used a pseudonym, and didn’t go to your own demonstrations, that you’re a therapist?

Not really. The time I started to blog I was working as a social worker at a LGBT community clinic and I was doing copyrighting and copyediting freelance on the side to make ends meet, and I was just starting to get my private practice off the ground. So that’s where I was. When I started to blog, I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I was sitting on my bed one night and was like, “Oh, I could do a blog. I have all these pictures and journal entries and why not?” And I had written this novel that’s not published about a guy named Jeremiah Moss and I liked writing in his voice. I wanted to keep writing in his voice.

Is his voice very different from yours?

No, not really. But it’s distilled . I just put the blog and the book in his name to kind of keep it separate and not have to worry about. It’s just easier.
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Girl Wonder

Meaghan O’Connell | Longreads | July 2017 | 12 minutes (3,000 words)

The other week, a hardcover copy of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, was jammed through our front door mail slot as I was sitting down to dinner with my family. The book hit the floor with a dramatic plop and my 3-year-old son went sprinting over to grab it. It felt like it was Christmas and Santa had just unceremoniously dropped our bounty into the ashes of the fireplace.

“WHAT IS THIS? WHO’S IS THIS FOR?” he shouted at me in his cheerfully desperate way. My son is a book publicist’s dream.

“I think it’s a book,” I said.

“Is it a Mommy Book?!” he demanded, meaning is it a book that I, his mother, will read.

Yep, it’s a Mommy Book.”

Open it, Mommy! What’s your new book about?” The pitch of his voice is so high and so sincere and so loud, you either have to meet him where he is or beg him to shut up, which feels bad, to tamp down on a young child’s enthusiasm.

“Hold on,” I said and tore open the manila envelope full of anticipation, but my spirits sagged a little when I saw that it was yellow, perfect, and the very book I’d finished the day before. This copy was the published, official one — hardcover, blurbed; complete. I held it up to show my husband Dustin, pointing to the cover with a confused, sarcastic look on my face. “I just emailed their publicist yesterday about how much I loved it?” I said.

Dustin just shrugged. He works in publishing himself, book marketing specifically. “I guarantee you they have no idea who they’ve sent which copies of what book to,” he said, which I knew was a reasonable explanation but did not diminish the affronted feelings I had, my eyes scanning over the jacket copy, landing on the author bio.

“Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991.” I sighed loudly, only sort of joking, and pulled out the press release, a printed-out letter from the publisher, folded and tucked into the first pages of the book.

My heart fluttered as I read all the praise.

“BY the age of twenty-five, Sally Rooney was a well-established figure on the Irish literary scene.” I read aloud to Dustin, with a grandiosity that would have been mocking had I not already been won over by the book. “IN a heated, multi-house auction at the London Book Fair, rights to Conversations With Friends would be sold in ELEVEN countries, emphasis mine…and —“

“Why do they add that?” Dustin asked, cutting in just as my movie trailer voiceover impression was really kicking into high gear. “As if anyone actually cares about that stuff.”

“Ha!” I shout-laughed. “I care!” My ruefulness was so much so it broke into merriment. “They put it in for jealous bitches like me.”

“Okay, but normal people,” he said, trailing off, stabbing his spaghetti with a fork.

“Fair,” I said. Normal people are hard to argue with, especially 11 countries’ worth.

My hand twitched with the urge to text a photo of the press release to one of the handful of female peers who said they were too jealous to read a 25-year-old’s celebrated novel. Someone who GOT ME. I loved the book deeply. I’d been bowled over, thinking about it nonstop. But that was in galley form, when the book was less real, more of my own secret mind meld with the author. My own nostalgia trip. This hardcover, and its peripheral marketing stuff, the buzz — well, it was hard not to be affected. Read more…