Category Archives: Books

Roxane Gay on the Final Frontier: Acceptance for Every Female Body

At Elle, Marisa Meltzer profiles Roxane Gay as the prolific author prepares to go on tour to support Hunger, a book she calls “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” In it, Gay reflects on what it’s like to live in a world that does not accommodate her body and how she “turned to food for numbness and protection” after being gang raped as a child.

“Hunger is not a story of triumph. Rather, it tackles the question of what it’s really like to live in a fat body—”and not Lane Bryant fat,” Gay says. “What is it like to be fat-fat? We don’t see that narrative.”

If there’s a through line to her writing, she says it’s exposing the unreasonable standards to which women are held, both by society and by each other, a reality Gay finds exhausting. “I think that I write about women’s lives in ways that allow people to be seen, and allow people to think about the world they are living in and the politics of this world without feeling like they are being judged or shamed for being imperfect,” she says.

The female body, in all shapes, Gay says, is a “final frontier, along with disability, that people can openly mock and demean and get away with treating with utter disregard.” The only possible solution she sees is “a huge amount of empathy. Kindness,” she says. “And people minding their own goddamn business.” Whether or not most readers relate to the statistics of Gay’s body, few will be able to finish her book without gaining a deeper understanding of her reality. “I don’t have a fantasy of a thin woman waiting to come out,” Gay says. “My fantasy would be to be able to walk down the street without being yelled at by someone. To walk through an airport without having someone point at me.” This is the true shock of Gay’s book—it is not the revelation of her actual weight, though how many of us, of any shape or size, would have the guts to put that on paper? It is the far deeper reveal: that a woman so accomplished, so seemingly fierce—in some circles, so revered—has been forced to “fantasize” about something so fundamental. “I don’t delude myself into thinking that if and when I reach [a certain] size, all my problems will be gone. Many of them would be different. At least I’d feel better in my body, better leaving my house,” she says. “My dreams have really become sad at this point—human dignity dreams.”

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A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…

The Mosul University Library: Reborn From the Ashes

At The New Yorker, Robin Wright reports on how the Mosul University Library — once home to books and documents dating to antiquity and destroyed by ISIS militants — is becoming the epicenter of Iraq’s cultural rebirth as the homemade mines are removed, Mosul University is rebuilt, and the book drives begin.

I could smell the acrid soot a block away. The library at the University of Mosul, among the finest in the Middle East, once had a million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts. Some dated back centuries, even a millennium, Mohammed Jasim, the library’s director, told me. Among its prize acquisitions was a Quran from the ninth century, although the library also housed thousands of twenty-first-century volumes on science, philosophy, law, world history, literature, and the arts. Six hundred thousand books were in Arabic; many of the rest were in English. During the thirty-two months that the Islamic State ruled the city, the university campus, on tree-lined grounds near the Tigris River, was gradually closed down and then torched. Quite intentionally, the library was hardest hit. ISIS sought to kill the ideas within its walls—or at least the access to them.

“My life’s work,” Jasim said, when we spoke by telephone two weeks ago. “I’d rather my house be destroyed, not the library. All my memories, all the people we helped there—we helped develop the city and the country. Whenever I speak about the library, it’s as if I’m putting my hand on an open wound.”

Then, there’s the problem of books. On May 25th, students organized a book drive outside the gutted library, even as battles between the Iraqi Army and isis militants echoed from across the river. Four young musicians performed in front of the library steps. Three students pinned their photographs of people and places and life in Mosul on a long clothesline and recounted the stories behind them. Four painters displayed their work, propped on easels. The event was the brainchild of Mosul Eye, a pseudonymous historian and blogger who chronicled life under ISIS rule until he fled Iraq, last year. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he still has family in Mosul.) Before the ISIS invasion, in 2014, he spent long hours in the library each week doing research, he told me. From abroad, he’s now trying to coördinate a cultural rebirth in Mosul, beginning with its university.

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A Sociology of the Smartphone

Adam Greenfield | Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life | Verso | June 2017 | 27 minutes (7,433 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from Radical Technologies, by Adam Greenfield. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

They are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking.

The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.

For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.

They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.

For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand. Read more…

A Witness to Other People’s Lives, Not Living My Own

Jennifer Romolini | Weird in a World That’s Not | Harper Business | June 2017 | 10 minutes (2,475 words)

 

Long before author Jennifer Romolini’s name appeared high up on the mastheads of publications such as Time Out NY, Tina Brown’s Talk Magazine, and Lucky, and websites like Yahoo Shine, Hello Giggles and Shondaland, she struggled to find herself. She spent her early 20s waitressing in restaurants and hotels, and was soon rushed by a pregnancy that ultimately wouldn’t last into marriage that wouldn’t, either, with a summer fling who should probably have been no more than that. She felt lost and stuck. She felt limited by her working class upbringing with weird parents who fashioned themselves after the oddball parents in Bowie’s “Kooks,” and by her academic failures — mostly for lack of trying — first in high school, then in college, which she didn’t finish. A perennial misfit where ever life took her, she assumed doors would always be closed to her. But a few years later, after leaving her first husband, she committed to figuring out what she wanted, getting her life together, and finding a place for herself in a career she liked, without compromising who she was.

When she was struggling, none of the career books on the market quite spoke to her, or offered solutions for someone who’d never been on a traditional career track. Now, after years building her career as an editor, she’s decided to fill that void for younger women who find themselves in her old shoes. Weird in a World That’s Not: A Career Guide for Misfits, F*ckups, and Failures, out today, is the book she wished she’d had — an interesting addition to the growing category of Misfit Lit, a hybrid of memoir and self-help. What follows is an excerpt, recommended by Longreads Essays Editor Sari Botton.

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Read more…

The Tender, Wild Realm of Children’s Literature: A Reading List

The plot of the book came to me as I was falling asleep: two girls share a bedroom, and squabble until they have no choice but to divide their room in half. Only one girl has access to the bedroom door. The other has the closet, which turns out to be an elevator. Suddenly, I was wide awake. I hadn’t thought of this book in years. Thank God for Google; soon, I had a list of results for This Room is Mine by Betty Ren Wright, now out of print. A few clicks later, I learned Wright had died in 2013 at 89 years old. She wrote more than thirty children’s books, including dozens of ghost stories. This Room is Mine isn’t a ghost story (at least not that I remember), but it does feature that archetypal spooky spot, the closet, and a supernatural closet at that. With a touch of fantasy, Wright dispels the girls’ disagreement.

Children’s literature is a conduit for larger questions of identity, fear, joy, and freedom, and the following essays explore these themes.

1. “The Best Children’s Books Appeal to All Ages.” (Gabrielle Bellot, Literary Hub, December 2016)

Sandwiched between Jules Feiffer’s Cousin Joseph and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend on the shelves of the bookstore where I work is a slim but hard children’s book: The Beach At Night, a book Ferrante wrote, ostensibly, for children. I’ve skimmed through it, and I find it terrifying, as I find any book about a sentient doll terrifying. Perhaps I’ve been too quick to judge. At LitHub, Gabrielle Bellot explores The Beach at Night through the lens of Ferrante’s anonymity and compares the work to C.S. Lewis, Chinua Achebe, Arnold Lobel, Gabriel García Márquez, and Hayao Miyazaki’s decidedly mature children’s stories:

Are these indeed stories for children, if children cannot be expected to get all of these references? But, of course, this is partly the point. Children’s stories are often for adults in different ways than they are for children—and, just as books change for us as we do, children’s tales will, at best, take on new shades of meaning, will reveal new hidden rooms and lofts, as we learn to look at them with more attuned eyes.

2. “Why I Came Out as a Gay Children’s Book Author.” (Alexander London, BuzzFeed, April 2016)

To make ends meet, children’s author Alexander London supplements his writing life with hundreds of school visits. After the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and legalized gay marriage, London wrestled with the decision to be honest with his curious students about his marriage to his husband.

3. “For Children and Sensitive Readers.” (Alex Kalamaroff, Blunderbuss Magazine, March 2014)

Daniil Kharms was co-founder of OBERIU, “the Union of Real Art, an organization of activist absurdists who dismissed realistic writers as purveyors of the drab and demanded a new art that was one-third highbrow language experiment, eight-sevenths freakshow,” He was invited to join the Association of Children’s Literature in 1927, one year before OBERIU was formed.

In 1931, Kharms was arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities. His children’s books, the police said, were too absurd; they didn’t embrace the new reality. Stalin’s ruffians wanted to live in a world where elephants would not appear out of the blue. They did not approve of extravagant sledding activities. A man screaming poetry from atop an armoire was worse than criminal; it represented a tear in the new reality. In one of Kharms’s children stories, the porcupines shout, “Cock-a-doodle-doo.” In another, Brazil is only a short drive from Leningrad. These impossible occurrences were unacceptable, weird whack-a-moles popping up and poking through the veneer of ordinary life. Who could tolerate such mischief?

4. “Ursula Nordstrom and the Queer History of the Children’s Book.” (Kelly Blewett, Los Angeles Review of Books, August 2016)

You may not know of Ursula Nordstrom, an editor who transformed children’s literature in the mid-20th century. Nordstrom was certain kids would enjoy books that mirrored their complex inner lives instead of dispensing pat morals. She was right. The books she championed, including Harriet the Spy, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, and Goodnight Moon, are iconic. Like several of the authors she worked with, Nordstrom was queer. In this essay, Kelly Blewett examines Nordstrom’s own children’s book, The Secret Language, through a queer lens.

For further reading about children’s lit, here are Longreads’ takes on authors Beverly Cleary, Mo Willems, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren, and illustrator Maira Kalman.

Forgotten Women Writers: A Reading List

For every Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, there are numerous women writers whose works aren’t found in the typical literary canon or school-required reading list. I’ve come across a handful of people who claim to be die-hard Anita Brookner or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha fans; these writers instill a certain kind of fervor among their devotees. It’s as if the authors themselves had reached out from the bookshelf and chosen their readers rather than the other way around. Their relative obscurity is what makes their fans so passionate — these are voices that never quite found the right audience when they were alive.

Perhaps now, thanks to the megaphone of the internet, they’ll find their disciples with a bit more ease. These five stories focus on women whose work has been overlooked, forgotten, or misinterpreted. Read more…

Chasing the Harvest: ‘It Used to Be Only Men That Did This Job’

Gabriel Thompson | Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture | Voice of Witness / Verso Press | May 2017 | 22 minutes (6,254 words)

The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Maricruz Ladino, who shared her story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.

***

Maricruz Ladino

Age: 44

Occupation: Produce Truck Driver

Born in: Sonora, Mexico

Interviewed in: Salinas, Monterey County

Agricultural region: Salinas Valley

 

Sexual harassment and violence in agriculture is both widespread and underreported. For years, the everyday threats and assaults faced by female farmworkers was a story that mostly stayed in the fields. In the past decade, however, a number of investigations—made possible by the bravery of women who have come forward—have uncovered a human rights crisis. In 2010, UC Santa Cruz published a study based on interviews with 150 female farmworkers in California. Nearly 40 percent reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, often from their supervisors; this harassment ranged from unwanted verbal advances to rape. Two years later, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Cultivating Fear,” based on interviews with more than fifty farmworkers across the country, which concluded that the persistent harassment and violence faced by women in the fields was “fostered by a severe imbalance of power” between undocumented farmworkers and their supervisors.

Maricruz Ladino knows all about that imbalance of power. “A supervisor can get you fired with the snap of his fingers,” she tells me. And so she stayed quiet, putting up with her supervisor’s daily harassment—and later, violent sexual assault—in order to hang on to her job at a lettuce packing plant in Salinas. Then came the day she gathered the courage to walk into the company’s office and file a complaint. She feared the worst: she could lose her job, or be deported. Both came to pass. But she has never regretted her decision.

We meet at a vegetable cooling plant in early October, where Maricruz welcomes me aboard her truck, which is carrying pallets of iceberg lettuce eventually destined for Honolulu. While she waits for more produce to be loaded, she talks about growing up on the border, her intense drive to always keep moving forward, and why she eventually broke the silence about the abuse she suffered. Read more…

Getting Out the Message To Save Himself

Don Waters | The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories | University of Nevada Press | May 2017 | 25 minutes (6954 words)

From altar boys to inmates, ranches to hotels, the characters in Don Waters’ new collection of short fiction struggle with faith and meaning as much as the landscape of the American Southwest. In this story, “Full of Days,” the protagonist’s antiabortion billboard and surrogate daughter force him to reexamine his controlling behavior and own deep loss, in a city known for sin. Our thanks to Waters and University of Nevada Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.

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“So Job died, being old and full of days.”  —Book of Job 42:17

Marc Maldonado sensed the Kingdom of God within him on Sundays, driving sun-scorched trash-scattered freeways to his temple of worship, and he felt the emptiness of his own realm whenever he set the table for one, whenever he aligned his socks in the hollow dresser drawer. In this hot, high-voltage city, with its pulsing neon, with its armies of fingers slamming on video poker buttons, he felt the loving kindness, the light ache of breath in his nostrils, and he knew he was necessary.

On that day Marc drove the freeways, analyzing angles for the best possible exposure. The great desert opened to him as he cruised I-15 North-South, I-515 East-West, changing direction where the freeways intersected and formed a concrete cross. Read more…

At War With the Rat Army

Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer | The Farm in the Green Mountains | New York Review Books | May 2017 | 11 minutes (2,896 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir The Farm in the Green MountainsHaving fled Nazi Germany, the Zuckmayers ended up spending several years of their exile on a farm in Vermont, where they engaged in a war of extermination against an invading army of rats. A bestseller in Germany when it was published in 1949, it was reprinted this month by New York Review Books. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I felt suddenly that I was not alone.

It was the third summer.

That was when I saw them for the first time.

It was evening, and I had gone into the shed to mix the feed before dark.

In this shed the buckets in which the feed was kept stood across from the entrance in a long row.

There was laying meal, feed grain, and the mash for fattening the chickens. There were buckets for duck and goose feed, which we mixed ourselves.

Zuck had carried the heavy sacks into the shed for me and left them in front of the empty buckets.

I began to untie the strings of the sacks and to use a measuring scoop to fill the buckets with the prescribed amounts of oats, bran, fattening mash, and corn meal.

The quiet of evening filled the shed. Ducks and geese peeped in their sleep. Lisettchen sat above me on her beam. I called her name, but this evening she only blinked at me and wouldn’t fly down.

The feed rattled into the buckets and smelled like fields at harvest time.

Suddenly I stopped in the middle of my work, because a violent, overwhelming terror seized me, like the fear of the unaccustomed and unknown. I felt suddenly that I was not alone with my animals, that I was being watched closely from some corner.

I stood motionless and waited.

Now I heard a noise—a disembodied, ghostly tripping across the wooden floor. Then I saw something standing on the stairs. It was a large, gray-brown rat. Read more…