Category Archives: Writing

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…

Travel Writing for Americans Who Stay Home

Warsaw Castle Square

Tom Swick was the travel editor of a “medium sized newspaper in a small Florida city,”  an envied and somewhat trivialized position, until it wasn’t. In LARB, he considers his career and the role travel writing plays for an audience that doesn’t get much vacation — and doesn’t share his inherent curiosity about the world.

9/11 brought a temporary end to envy of my job — suddenly nobody was jealous of frequent flyers — while at the same time elevating my status. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political.

Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? What was the last travel book you read?” The memoir had long been in the ascendant, which was strange; if anything, 9/11 should have made us fervently, desperately curious about the world. But as a nation we seemed to be turning our gaze inward, to our childhoods, our relationships, our obsessions, our phobias, our disorders, our illnesses, our addictions. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots?

There are countries whose citizens, without ever leaving, can’t help but be exposed to the foreign; in the United States, the exposure frequently never goes beyond the table. Years ago, the Travel Channel devolved into a kind of offshoot of the Food Network, more or less proving that, here, abroad is acceptable only if served on a plate. We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. It is said that one must first love oneself before one can hope to love another, but the United States seems dangerously stuck on itself. Yes, there’s France and Italy — the book publishing darlings — but they’re viewed, because they’re so often depicted, more as pleasure gardens than real countries.

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At McSorley’s: Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes, and Psychos

At Hazlitt, Rafe Bartholomew tells the story of his father, Geoffrey Bartholomew, who felt that his alcohol addiction and his bartending job at famed McSorley’s in New York City had prevented him from achieving the dream of becoming a writer. Bartholomew quit the booze but not the bar, and self-published a volume of poetry: The McSorley Poems: Voices from New York City’s Oldest Pub. In this poignant story of ambition, regrets, fathers, and sons, Rafe recounts how Bartholomew found his voice by mining the humanity of the “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos” who frequented the bar.

The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.

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The Real Obama: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer David J. Garrow

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 12 minutes (3,333 words)

 

There are few subjects in contemporary history who deserve a 1,400-page biography, but Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency merits every word. Deeply researched over nine years — with over a thousand interviews and many never-before-seen documents — David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama covers 44’s life to date: his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, community organizing in Illinois, his impressive work as a Harvard Law student, and his pursuit of politics as a profession in Chicago. All the while, Garrow shows, Obama was both being shaped and thoughtfully crafting himself, turning himself from the bright, jocular kid at Punahou School in Hawaii into one of the most revolutionary, exciting presidents of the modern era.

Garrow is a Professor of Law and History, and a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, and has written several nonfiction books, including Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Bearing the Cross.

His latest book has already been compared to Robert Caro’s history of Lyndon Johnson, but Garrow’s Obama biography seems to go even further: two hundred pages of footnotes, conversations with seemingly every vital person in Obama’s life, and a nonpartisan perspective that will no doubt open the floodgates of interpretation.

I spoke with Garrow recently, and it’s clear he’s a born interviewer; he began asking me questions about my own life, until, finally, I steered us toward a wide-ranging, exceptionally in-depth conversation in which we discussed Obama’s coming-of-age, influences, formative experiences, shifting personality, the significance of friends and family, and how he eventually understood his own legacy and the arc of his grand personality.

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The Story of Memory: An Interview with Paula Hawkins

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 8 minutes (2,228 words)

 

Born in Zimbabwe on August 28, 1972, Paula Hawkins’ family moved to London when she was a teenager. Although writing fiction interested her in her younger years, her stories generally remained unfinished. After graduating from Keble College, Oxford, she took the practical route and entered the newsroom at The Times of London, where she became a well-respected financial journalist.

In her thirties, she wrote romantic comedy novels with titles like Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, All I Want for Christmas, One Minute to Midnight, and The Reunion under the pseudonym Amy Silver, but this never proved a perfect match for her talents. Increasingly tight on money and disenchanted with writing lighter fare, she sent a partial draft of a new novel to her agent. It was unlike anything she had ever published: dark, twisted, and page-turning. Her agent went gaga. The rest is literary history.

The Girl on the Train
has sold about twenty million copies worldwide since January 2015, according to her publisher, and last year’s film adaptation grossed $173 million. Into the Water (out from Riverhead on May 2, 2017), is already destined to be a bestseller and DreamWorks recently purchased the film rights.

Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water also concerns memory, unreliable narrators, and an obsession with the dark and macabre, but the novel is more complex, with interweaving narratives, narrative perspective shifts, and a cast of characters so complicated it surely deserves a front-of-book family tree for clarity.

I recently spoke with Hawkins about faulty memory, her rise to fame, her desire to be more literary, and the way her novels reflect the contemporary political climate.

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American Media is Still Getting Chinese Food All Wrong

Chinatown window by Pam Mandel

Of the 263 entries under the “Chinese” recipe filter on the New York Times food section, almost 90 percent have a white person listed as author in the byline. Only 10 percent of the recipes are authored by Chinese writers.

On Munchies (a Vice channel), Clarissa Wei shares what we’re missing when Chinese food is covered by writers with no personal connection to the cuisine. Many writers still use a colonial era style guide (the Wade-Giles guide). Some are stuck on the notion of Chinese food as cheap eats, with no sense of what it takes to make the food. Writing about Chinese food is also subject to a lot of “discovery,” as though a dish hadn’t been around for hundreds of years, influencing other cuisines we take for granted.

Prosciutto, in the Western world, is glorified, but people have rarely heard of Chinese ham. Marco Polo allegedly brought ham-making techniques from the Chinese city of Jinhua to Europe, and many of today’s processing technologies for dry-cured hams have evolved from the techniques from this modest Chinese city.

Clocking in at about 5,000 years, China is the longest continuous civilization in the world. The Chinese, after all, were master farmers and cooks. Though the country only has 10 percent of arable land worldwide, they produce food for 20 percent of the world’s population.

Yet, here in the West, we read and commission more stories about poop-themed restaurants, Communist hot pot eateries, and dog-eating festivals than deeply, thoughtfully researched pieces on Chinese pickling techniques and the art of Chinese lamb roasts.

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There’s No Way Hannah Can Afford That Apartment

Lena Dunham on the set of Girls (HBO)

I worked retail, selling art supplies, when Friends was insanely popular. I lived in a tiny studio — they’d call it micro-housing now — and I got by. I quit when I was hired as a caption writer. It paid three times what my retail job paid, though it was still not a lot of money. I moved into a two bedroom duplex with a friend, and I continued to get by. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t have a lot of expenses, either.

But it was not New York City, it was Seattle on the front edge of the tech boom, and it was still cheap. It always bothered me that Monica, a line cook, and Rachel, a barista — and not, I think, a very good one — had that spectacular apartment. Joey and Chandler’s place seemed a bit more believable, though I imagine Chandler was always having to front Joey at least part of his rent.

And now I’m on about Friends, when I mean to be on about Girls, which has the same maddening practical issue. How do they pay their rent?

On The Billfold, Emily Meg Weinstein compares Girls creator Lena Dunham’s own experience with that of her main character, Hannah Horvath. Weinstein provides real world economic context for what it means to be a working creative and — spoiler alert — single mother.

Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.

In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)

TL;DR: It ain’t happening.

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Choosing Mother India

Upside down road sign reading "Wrong Way"

Born in New Jersey to a family of Indian descent, Kanan Gole chooses India over America by moving there for work. In “Going the Right Way” on The Smart Set, Gole explains why she made that choice and how it’s perceived by the Indians around her.

My decision to move to India to work was primarily motivated by my need for a stronger understanding of my heritage. There’s no other way to truly understand my Indian software except living where my parents lived. I look like an Indian, can dress like one, can sometimes speak like one too (though that is under construction), but I wouldn’t live up to the title “Indian.” It is difficult to define immigrant kid identity, so I try not to do it at all. I am simply part Indian, part American. Which parts? That’s too technical for me, a subject that will cause me unnecessary angst, and possibly one that won’t be resolved. Life is good, I must say. But people insist that only an idiot would move from the land of the dollar to the 68-times-weaker rupee.

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko: The Siberian Cowboy Poet

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

…So that got me thinking about Elko. You go to an academic poetry reading and the poetry may be fine literature, but the event is pretty tame. Pretty dry … and Yevtushenko—he didn’t fit that mold. It was like a bomb went off when he started reciting. This volcano of language was pouring out of his body. So my experience in Elko told me this guy is a gold mine. We’ve got to get him to an audience that will really appreciate the performative element of his work.

At the Paris Review, Carson Vaughn profiles the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He was known for his brightly colored clothing, his bombastic delivery, and his teen-idol-like effect on the women in the audience at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Yevtushenko died on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, where he’d been a lecturer on poetry and the history of world cinema.

And they all remember the way he performed: animated and loud, arms flailing, spit flying, his new anthology in hand, leaving the stage behind. The one and only Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, walking with a group of performers to a restaurant downtown, would later mimic Yevtushenko’s delivery, his accent spot on, according to Bette Ramsey, and his limbs going wild.

“Talk about a flashback to Catholicism,” Zarzyski said. “Yevtushenko in his Cossack vestments moving up and down the aisle reciting poetry—and the women just swooning.”

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Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

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I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

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