Search Results for: Ben Austen

10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2019

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.

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For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter using hashtag #Longreads. It’s a nightly thing: Before sitting down to write (currently working on a spec screenplay — an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma set in suburbs of Mumbai), I look around for a story, read it, then share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether I am able to write something or not.

Starting with David Gates’s “Texas” from The New Yorker, to Laura Adamczyk’s “Too Much a Child” from Lit Hub, I posted 288 stories in 2018. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most, in random order: Read more…

Reading with Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy”

10th October 1957: American author Richard Wright sits at a desk with a pen in his hand shortly before the publication of his book, 'White Man, Listen!,' Paris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eighth grade, age 13. I was skinny, flat-chested, and wore round Dwayne Wayne glasses with red wire frames. My mother and I lived together in a small brick house on a wide, busy road, near the Memphis International Airport. We had a rotting oak tree in our front yard. I went to the public middle school across town where students were mostly white and middle class. That year has many beginnings. It was when I began to notice my math homework was harder for me than anything else, and that I felt serious about English class.  Ms. Erskine, my English teacher, was a short plump woman of Scottish ancestry who lived in the suburbs out east and had a son in my grade. Her hair was curly, brown, and chin length. She spoke rapidly, with her hands.

In our unit on Black American literature, I first encountered the poetry of Langston Hughes.  We talked about, “I, Too,” (They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well), and Ms. Erskine told us, dropping her voice as if letting us in on a juicy piece of gossip, “he isn’t talking about eating food.” She read “Mother to Son,” aloud (“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”) and made her voice strangely accented in a way I wished she wouldn’t.

At some point that semester we read Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I found it gorgeous and also scary. It trembled with a fiery propulsion and it was the first time I’d read a book that talked about a Black person being there, where I was, in Memphis. Wright had lived in the city for a portion of his early childhood, from sometime in 1913 to 1916. In an early scene, he beats the neighborhood boys who try to rob him of his grocery money with a stick. Ms. Erskine mostly lectured to us about the hunger Wright and his family suffered, and for this reason, Wright’s mother’s advice to, “Jump up and catch a kungry,” sticks with me. I remember Black Boy as a story of a stark, bleak childhood and the violence of a racist South. “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled,” Wright tells us.

I had been a reader for a long time. A born reader, it seemed; I read poetry and Bible verses in church pageants and had an active private reading life that sometimes got me in trouble when I’d stay up past my bedtime with a novel by Judy Blume or the Sweet Valley High series, a nightlight, and bleary eyes. It had been my mother who stoked a desire for reading in me and drilled into me a certain kind of speech that made me sound older than my age, as if I wasn’t the poorest kid in my classes, which I almost certainly always was. She’d had her own active reading life. I remember new books coming to our house, from the library, by the handful, and when every Toni Morrison novel from the 80s and 90s debuted. My reading life kept growing — the work of Sylvia Plath and Jane Austen became high school obsessions I shared with my closest girlfriends; in college, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Tsitsi Dangarembga taught me about the global costs of poverty, racism, and misogyny.

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What I’m saying is I was always going to read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. I was made for it by birth and acquired disposition. With its author, I share a region of origin, a generation, a difficult relationship with a mother who taught me to read. There are artists I love and admire for how well they execute ideas and Laymon is one of those and has always been. But I also relate to his work ancestrally, at its marrow.

I read Heavy first in one sitting, up late into the early hours of the next morning despite having to work the next day. I was silent for a while — for a few days actually — and just let my feelings be. I’d been in the middle of a rough spot with my own family, due to our denials and delusions about sexual assault and physical abuse. I’ve loved reading white readers and critics engage with Heavy as a reckoning with America’s sick affairs with racism and familial violence. I loved reading about Laymon’s generosity as a teacher in Bim Adewunmi’s stellar profile of the artist, and other Black women writers have mined layers of the story in impressive ways. What interests me right now (and many things about the book interest me, for there are numerous portals through which to enter it), is how Heavy spoke to me as a Black woman reader. It sent me back to Black Boy; it honestly gave me a sense, a nudging that I should revisit it that preceded my recognition of the two works’ unquestionably shared literary genealogy:

That night, I started rereading Black Boy. Reading the book at Millsaps felt like a call to arms. Reading the book in my bed, a few feet from your room, in our house, felt like a whisper wet with warm saliva. Wright wrote about disasters and he let the reader know that there wasn’t one disaster in America that started the day everything fell apart. I wanted to write like Wright far more than I wanted to write like Faulkner, but I didn’t really want to write like Wright at all. I wanted to fight like Wright. I wanted to craft sentences that styled on white folk, and dared them to do anything about the styling they’d just witnessed. I understood why Wright left Jackson, left Mississippi, left the Deep South, and ultimately left the nation. But I kept thinking about how Grandmama didn’t leave when she could. I thought about how you left and chose to come back. I thought about how I chose to stay. I wondered if the world would have ever read Wright had he not left Mississippi. I wondered if black children born in Mississippi after Wight would have laughed, or smiled more at his sentences if he imagined Mississippi as home. I wondered if he though he’d come back home soon the day he left for Chicago.

Because I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, I’d forgotten that Black Boy is also an account of how a Black boy became a Black writer and reader. When he has his first story published as a teenager in a Black newspaper, Wright tells us, “From no quarter, with the exception of the Negro newspaper editor, had there come a single encouraging word…Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing.” On what reading novels opened up for him:

It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.

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Heavy is about a family and a state and a nation and trauma, but it also directly confronts generations of Black art (by men and women) and the redemptive possibility inherent in the making of it. It is a direct response to Richard Wright’s seething, possibly unrelenting anger at his condition, a dance with Toni Cade Bambara’s humor and her love of Black speech. It chronicles a conversation with Margaret Walker Alexander, where she gives Laymon a poetry collection by Nikki Giovanni and tells him to “own your name.” It is a dare to Black artists to make work for us, about us, and without shame:

I read The Fire Next Time over and over again. I wondered how it would read differently had the entire book, and not just the first section, been written to and for, Baldwin’s nephew. I wondered what, and how, Baldwin would have written to his niece. I wondered about the purpose of warning white folk about the coming fire. Mostly, I wondered about what black writers weren’t writing about when we spent so such creative energy begging white folk to change.

In doing this, Heavy shakes off many burdens.

Throughout, Laymon shares his wildly vivid reading life with us, how he reads and thinks about his reading. He admits when something in a text confuses him; he tells us a book must be re-read to be truly read. He is, essentially, teaching us, reminding us, how to read. And reading may not save us from despair, or pull us from the edge of where we’re at with our families, or reverse the damage we have done to this planet. But I’ll always believe storytelling can clarify, fortify, nourish, and help us move things along.

More great Black writers on writers, readers, and reading:

 

Bridget Jones’s Staggeringly Outdated Diary

Miramax Films / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,918 words)

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

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I spent most of the ‘90s smoking and being a poseur, but in between packs of Gauloises I also read a lot, so long as it wasn’t the books that my teachers and professors assigned. My literature of choice was all about the same thing: cool contemporary adults wigging out about their relationships, a genre that would soon fall under the terms “chick lit” (see: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, 1996) and its somewhat lesser-known counterpart, “dick lit” (see: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, 1995).

Bridget Jones was acid-tongued but also prone to disastrous pratfalls, just like me! And High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming was unambitious and antisocial, just like me! I loved these protagonists so much, in fact, that when I stood in front of a chagrined Hornby at a signing in New York and thrust out my dog-eared copy of his book, I proclaimed that it had “helped me through some very difficult times,” and then I smoked a cigarette indoors, and everyone seemed pleased, especially me. In revisiting these tomes of my youth as an aging poseur, I’ve had both a not-insubstantial craving for nicotine and a series of horrifying revelations. Namely, these books — despite their cool Gen-X setting, cool Gen-X props (cigarettes), and cool Gen-X openness about failure — are some inveterate Baby Boomer bullshit.

Reader, if you think I’m aiming to incite a Quarrel of the Ancients and the Even More Ancients, you are correct. These cool Gen-X novels, written by people born in 1958 (Fielding) and 1957 (Hornby), are basically different iterations of a familiar Boomer trope. It’s the same romantic wish fulfillment — the uncomplicated, largely imaginary, white-bourgeois heterosexual sort — you find in the offensive and pre-antiquated self-help bestsellers of the same decade, namely The Rules (Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, 1995) and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray, 1992).

Whereas the Gen-X motto of whatever encapsulated the extent of our desire to mitigate other people’s love lives and often our own, our elders — unencumbered by slackitude; seemingly aghast at our normalization of casual sex — saw in us a deep and aching need for what the Germans call das Happyend. Romantic fatalists of the ‘90s needn’t worry, you guys! For every (white, bourgeois, heterosexual) romantic problem that appeared in our midst and on our bestseller lists, there was a corresponding solution straight outta Levittown.

Read more…

Eating Alone

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Stephanie Rosenbloom | Excerpt adapted from Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude | Viking | June 2018 |14 minutes (3,719 words)

Comptoir Turenne is on the ground floor of a nineteenth-century building with battered shutters in the Haut-Marais, on the less fashionable end of rue de Turenne. On the more fashionable end, Glow on the Go! serves concoctions like the Lolita with organic cherries and “superfoods adaptogens,” Baby Beluga sells bikinis and matching sunglasses for Capri-bound toddlers, and the windows of Delphine Pariente’s jewelry shop (now known as Nouvel Amour) advise: Soyez heureux, be happy.

Comptoir Turenne has no such panache. Its sidewalk views are mainly of a real estate agency and a men’s suit shop. It is not on “must-eat” lists. Visitors are not burdened by the ghosts of Hemingway and Sartre to have an indelible experience. All of  this makes Turenne a laid-back spot for breakfast pour un. You can sit under its cheerful red awnings, mere blocks from the action, and fancy yourself Parisian.

Portions, however, appear to be measured with Americans in mind. A croque madame arrived at the table looking as if it had been flown in from the Cheesecake Factory. A sunny-side-up egg was as big as a pancake. Beneath it, thick, crusty bread was covered in toasted cheese. Beside it, french fries were piled in a little deep-fryer basket. A salad was already beginning to migrate off the plate. There was barely room on the table for my café crème and the speculoos tucked between the cup and saucer.

When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world.

I eyed the speculoos. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story in Peace Is Every Step about being a child and taking half an hour, sometimes forty-five minutes, to finish a cookie that his mother bought him. “I would take a small bite and look up at the sky,” he wrote. “Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I just enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets, the cat, the dog, the flowers.”

I can polish off a speculoos in less time than it takes to say “speculoos.” Nonetheless, Nhat Hanh’s story resonates in an age when it’s not unusual for a meal to be eaten with one hand while the other is posting a photo of it to Instagram. Men in suits stopped for coffee and cigarettes. Children were being walked to school. For the solo diner, no view is better than the one from the sidewalk, even the one from Comptoir Turenne. When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world. Read more…

Literature by the Numbers

Photo credit: Sierra Katow

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.

Read more…

Death Made Material: The Hair Jewelry of The Brontës

Portrait of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, by their brother Branwell (via Wikimedia Commons)

Deborah Lutz | The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects | W.W. Norton | May 2015 | 42 minutes (6,865 words)

Below is an excerpt from the book The Brontë Cabinet, by Deborah Lutz, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers.

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Long neglect has worn away

Half the sweet enchanting smile

Time has turned the bloom to grey

Mould and damp the face defile

But that lock of silky hair

Still beneath the picture twined

Tells what once those features were

Paints their image on the mind.

—Emily Brontë, Untitled Poem

If the Brontës’ things feel haunted in some way, like Emily’s desk and its contents, then the amethyst bracelet made from the entwined hair of Emily and Anne is positively ghost-ridden. Over time the colors have faded, the strands grown stiff and brittle. Charlotte may have asked Emily and Anne for the locks as a gesture of sisterly affection. Or, the tresses were cut from one or both of their corpses, an ordinary step in preparing the dead for burial in an era when mourning jewelry with hair became part of the grieving process. Charlotte must have either mailed the hair to a jeweler or “hairworker” (a title for makers of hair jewelry) or brought it to her in person. Then she probably wore it, carrying on her body a physical link to her sisters, continuing to touch them wherever they were. Read more…