This week, we’re sharing stories from Teju Cole, Barton Gellman, Dexter Filkins, Rebecca May Johnson, and Navneet Alang.
Teju Cole | The New York Times Magazine | May 18, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,411 words)
“History’s first draft is almost always wrong — but we still have to try and write it.”
Barton Gellman | The Atlantic | May 18, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,472 words)
“After receiving a trove of documents from the whistleblower, I found myself under surveillance and investigation by the U.S. government.”
Dexter Filkins | The New Yorker | May 18, 2020 | 39 minutes (9,920 words)
“Even as Iranians speculate about who will succeed Khamenei, many believe that, whoever becomes Supreme Leader, the revolution is no longer salvageable.”
Rebecca May Johnson | Granta | May 13, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,171 words)
“That violent heteronormative cultures of sex and reproduction among humans are attributed to ‘nature’ feels astonishing after spending time on the allotment. The slutty ingenuity of vegetables when it comes to desire and reproductive methods is a marvel that makes a mockery of conservative ideas of the natural.”
Navneet Alang | Eater | May 20, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,041 words)
On Alison Roman, social media, and the conundrum of formerly “exotic” foods finding mainstream success.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Gabrielle Hamilton, Nicholas Thompson, Anna Badkhen, Alex Perry, and Caleb Johnson.
Gabrielle Hamilton | New York Times Magazine | April 23, 2020 | 23 minutes (5,831 words)
“Forced to shutter Prune, I’ve been revisiting my original dreams for it — and wondering if there will still be a place for it in the New York of the future.”
Nicholas Thompson | Wired | April 20, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,971 words)
“After 20 years of long-distance competition, I ran my fastest. All it took was tech, training, and a new understanding of my life.”
Anna Badkhen | Granta | April 16, 2020 | 28 minutes (4,780 words)
“Anna Badkhen was researching Eden – the origins of humanity in the Afar Triangle of East Africa – when coronavirus broke out across the world.”
Alex Perry | Outside | April 15, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,610 words)
“It was supposed to be a routine six-hour tour, including the highlight: a quick hike into the island’s otherworldly caldera. Then the volcano exploded. What happened next reveals troubling questions about the risks we’re willing to take when lives hang in the balance.”
Caleb Johnson | The Bitter Southerner | April 21, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,276 words)
“E.O. Wilson’s big ideas for saving nature and humanity along with it.”
Before John Freeman became a respected editor of magazines such as Freeman’s and Granta, and edited multiple anthologies, he was an aspiring poet. Like many of us young writers, he couldn’t figure out how to get his writing life started, so he went into New York book publishing, thinking that might be the career route for him. For Poets & Writers magazine, Freeman writes a welcome personal narrative about how literary events were actually what provided the guidance and models he needed at that early stage of his career. He’d spent so much time in classrooms that he didn’t understand how writers conducted their professional and artistic lives. Interacting with authors offered the same kind of humanity that reading books did, except author events also inspired, educated, illuminated, humbled, and oriented him as a writer, giving him the directions he needed at that stage in his life. Candid, unscripted moments, pointed questions, casual off-the-cuff comments by everyone from Susan Sontag to David Foster Wallace – even the way they conducted themselves in front of the audience – it all left its mark on Freeman.
To this day, even after attending hundreds of readings, and giving hundreds more of my own, I find it hard to be cynical about gigs, readings, tours, and the like: Every single event holds the possibility that someone will leave changed—even the writer. The best writers on the road or onstage know that giving a reading or participating in an event isn’t simply a chance to say what they know. A good public event is more of a dialogue than that. An oral version of what writers do on the page, a reading has no predetermined outcome. In the sacred space of the public event, writers can try things out: a new idea, a way of seeing around what’s in front of us.
Having grown up in the heyday of post-structural criticism, which touted the idea of the abstract author, I was relieved when I started going to readings to see the forms I loved re-embodied, to see that the novel was made by a human hand, a heart, a mind. The more writers I saw onstage, the more physical the art form seemed to be, the more conceptual theory felt beside the point. John Ashbery seemed flattered by all the work done to figure out what his poems were about, but he also appeared, at good readings, just glad to be there. By the time I saw him read, much too late, he seemed to know his time was brief.
It’s funny reading this essay, because for me, it completes a circle. Freeman did the same for me at one AWP panel, where he and others spoke about how they think about editing, and how they came to it. I listened and filled pages of my tiny notebook with their ideas and anecdotes, and in turn, that simple panel shaped me. Such as: “If you’re not reading submissions that represent what America looks like, then you’re not presenting an accurate portrait of a time and place.”
What if author Leo Tolstoy was murdered? Consider the evidence: late in life, the great Russian author started ending his daily journal entries with the phrase “If I am alive.” He and his wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, fought so much he wrote his novella The Kreutzer Sonata about a husband who murdered his wife. (Granted, Tolstoy did give her his diaries, which detailed his sexual escapades, including the fact that he’d a child with a serf who lived on their property.) He had an associate who was trying to get control of the copyrights to his early manuscripts. Tolstoy’s wife made a strange statement on her deathbed. These are the puzzle pieces that a young Stanford student named Elif Batuman used to investigate the circumstances of Tolstoy’s death.
Before Batuman started writing for The New Yorker, she harbored a profound interest in the famed Russian author. At Granta, Batuman recounts her wild academic goose chase and how it led her to the ranks of other Tolstoyans at the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia. The four days she spent wearing sweatpants and flip-flops after her luggage got lost en route to Russia is the tip of the iceberg. This piece is a comic examination of both a subculture and of the depths of her own youthful imagination, which became her first book, The Possessed, about the people obsessed with Russia’s great authors.
The morning panel was devoted to comparisons of Tolstoy and Rousseau. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop thinking about snakes. Perhaps Tolstoy had been killed by some kind of venom?
‘The French critic Roland Barthes has said that the least productive subject in literary criticism is the dialogue between authors,’ began the second speaker. ‘Nonetheless, today I am going to talk about Tolstoy and Rousseau.’
I remembered a Sherlock Holmes story in which an heiress in Surrey is found in the throes of a fatal conniption, gasping, ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ Dr. Watson assumes that she was killed by a band of Gypsies who were camping on the property, and who wore polka-dotted kerchiefs. But Watson is wrong. The heiress’s words actually referred to the rare spotted Indian adder introduced into her bedroom through a ventilation shaft by her wicked stepfather.
The heiress’s dying words, ‘the speckled band,’ represent one of the early instances of the ‘clue’ in detective fiction. Often, a clue is a signifier with multiple significations: a band of Gypsies, a handkerchief, an adder. But if the ‘speckled band’ is a clue, I wondered drowsily, what is the snake? There was a loud noise and I jerked upright. The Tolstoy scholars were applauding. The second speaker had finished her talk and was pushing the microphone along the conference table to her neighbor.
Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | January 2020 | 10 minutes (2,603 words)
Recently while running, I listened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on audiobook. It was recommended to me because of my interest in suspenseful novels and books about art.
An hour into listening, I was puzzled by the book’s two-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists. Back from a run, I read that although the book had won the Pulitzer Prize, there’d been some controversy surrounding the award. Francine Prose drew attention to Tartt’s lazy clichés. James Wood described the book as a children’s story. The Paris Review, London Review of Books, and Sunday Times had similar things to say.
Several chapters later, I realized that none of the criticisms had objected to the book’s racism. After another search, I was relieved to see that one article on Salon questioned the book’s “wishful portrayal of people of color,” all of whom played the part of loving, docile servants. The writer carefully dissected these characters, revealing the “banal multicultural textbook” fantasy of an old world with its antique paintings and selfless servants, which continually looked away from real racial dynamics.
But by the end of the article, the writer had still not mentioned, in her meticulous study of racial blind spots as they applied to peripheral characters, the racism at the book’s very center, in the character of the Russian Boris who is the protagonist’s nemesis and best friend.
I’m especially surprised that this had gone entirely unnoticed in the U.S ever since the book’s publication in 2013, even though literary conversations of the past decade have often simultaneously been conversations about identity.
It starts with a road, a two-lane blacktop called West Virginia Route 219 that spines its way through Pocahontas County and serves, depending on the stretch, as main street and back street, freeway and byway, sidewalk and catwalk.
It is June 25, 1980, just after the summer solstice, and a young man named Tim is driving home for the night. He had driven to Lewisburg, the big town almost an hour away, and is coming back now, with fresh laundry and groceries.
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.
For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter. It’s a habit now: Before sitting down to write — my Hindi language ten-part Audible Original Thriller Factory is up and running, written and directed under series director and presenter Anurag Kashyap’s stewardship with narrators including Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tabu — 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.
My father and I sat in near silence for the four-hour drive to western Massachusetts. The worst possible thing had happened: my father had read my diary. Now, my parents were sending me to summer camp for three weeks. Over the previous eighteen months, I had undergone a personality transformation. They had seen the outward signs — how my grades slipped and my once gregarious and sweet disposition now alternated between despondency, sulking, and fury. The diary revealed that this new me also lied and drank and spent as much time as possible in the company of bad influences and older boys who either believed that I really was sixteen or didn’t care that I was actually thirteen. I, too, was confounded by my transformation and so my diary offered a meticulous accounting of events with little reflection. When I imagined my father reading it, my mind blanched white hot, like an exposed negative. My body was brand new but felt singed around the edges, already ruined in some principal way.
Dina Nayeri | Longreads | August 2019 | 13 minutes (3,210 words)
In the last two years I’ve become entangled in the workings of the homelessness prevention arm of London’s Camden Council. Camden is the borough that includes the British Museum, the British Library, a small sliver of Regents Park, and a huge chunk of Hampstead Heath. It also has its rough parts, with subsidized or free council housing, artists on grants, young mothers on benefits — as in most of London, Camden’s residents are a varied lot and everyone, whatever their socioeconomic class, uses some kind of government service.
Minoo is an Iranian refugee with two bright children and a sick, immobile husband. In Iran, she was an experienced nurse, her husband an engineer and Christian convert. Her daughter is clever and witty, her sharp eye taking in every detail. Her son is a football star with a head for math. The four escaped religious persecution and possible death in Iran, spent months as asylum seekers having their story scrutinized for lies, then slept in a roach motel for a few more months before being recognized as both refugees and at risk for homelessness. Now, having been granted asylum, they share a tiny room in a Camden hostel and wait for permanent housing.
Minoo and I met two years ago, when her church contacted me to befriend a new refugee who was at risk of depression. She was my age, a mother, like me, and came from my hometown in Iran. We had fled for the same kind of apostasy, though I had been a child and she was in her 30s. We met for coffee. She was bedraggled but smiled for my sake. She insisted on buying my coffee. She had sad, kind eyes, with a drop of something, like a tear, lodged near one iris. To bridge the class divide, and to put her at ease, I made a clown of myself, and soon she opened up to me. “We can’t breathe,” she said. “My son is almost a teenager. My daughter is suffocating.”
The family’s Camden hostel room has a single bed that they share: sick husband, wife, pre-teen boy and girl. From the bed, you can touch the bathroom door and the kitchen table. Three large steps will put you at the opposite wall. Every day, they face potential homelessness, and yet, for two years, the Camden housing authority has run them in circles. It’s important to stress that the family’s status has already been decided. By the (conservative) government’s own estimation, they are at risk of homelessness, and given the husband’s condition, entitled to public housing that includes separate rooms for the boy and girl. And yet, accessing it has been humiliating, repetitive, and opaque. Recently it’s become vindictive, too.