“The pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick, the way a fire close to dry and oily things will set them aflame. And the evil of the plague went even further: not only did talking to or being around the sick bring infection and a common death, but also touching the clothes of the sick or anything touched or used by them…” —Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
“At the beginning of the plague, when there was now no more hope but that the whole city would be visited;…you may be sure from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.” —Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
When the pandemic comes, the usual thing is for people to stop talking to one another. I’ve been consulting my small collection of plague books (a normal thing to own), and I’m getting the impression that this has always been the case. Talking and touching are, after all, biologically indistinguishable; to communicate, you have to get close to someone. Close enough to catch whatever it is they’ve got.
Or anyway that used to be how it went. It used to be that, when a plague came around, if you were worried you couldn’t live without other people and their stories and all their little habits and funny dances and things, you had better secure a few charming young noblewomen to take with you into seclusion at your country villa for the duration of the epidemic. Nowadays the script has been flipped. Clubbers can go to “cloud raves,” bored teens can post funny videos, and I can write and publish this month’s books newsletter from the comfort of my living room — I can communicate myself to thousands of you even though I haven’t left my house in like 90 hours, having been a little too spooked by the specter of “community spread” in New York to see First Cow at the Angelika this weekend even though I already had tickets.
(Not, to be honest, that I don’t always write the newsletter from my couch! But it’s a little different, obviously, working from home as opposed to actively avoiding other people.)
The coronavirus is “the first pandemic in history that could be controlled,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday. What he meant is that it’s the first pandemic for which we’ve had a whole host of technologies at our disposal that can allow society to screech to a grinding halt without totally collapsing — arguably the most important of which is the internet. Solitude without loneliness is, incredibly, achievable on a wide scale. We can all quarantine alone, together, in one big villa in the cloud. No need to recruit the noblewomen. The Decameron is online.
With that in mind, here’s a round-up of nine not-to-be-missed book-related stories from all around the web this past month, communicated from me to you with zero physical contact. And, while reading, if you happen to get tempted to go out into a big crowd and breathe other people’s air and feel the heat from other people’s bodies, remember this important piece of advice: don’t.
1. “Sex in the Theater: Jeremy O. Harris and Samuel Delany in Conversation” by Toniann Fernandez, The Paris Review
A remarkable conversation on sex, art, and so much more between acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris and sci-fi legend Samuel Delany, whom you may or may not know is also, in the vein of his childhood inspirations Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade, a writer of erotic novels, such as the “unpublishable” Hogg.
2. “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer If You Can Afford It” by Lynn Steger Strong, The Guardian
Novelist Lynn Steger Strong examines the damning economics of authorship.
3. “The Post-Traumatic Novel” by Lili Loofbourow, The New York Review of Books
“What I have found myself hungering for, in short, is literature that stretches past legal testimonies and sentimental appeals toward what, for lack of a better phrase, I’m calling post-traumatic futurity.” Lili Loofbourow reviews three recent books reflective of the Me Too moment and outlines a new approach to the survivor’s story.
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4. “Jericho Rising” by Allison Glock, Garden & Gun
A profile of the incredible Jericho Brown. “In person, Brown is an explosion of life, magnetic, boisterous, a one-man carnival ride. Simply put, there is no scenario where one would be unaware that Jericho Brown is in the room.”
5. “Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today” by Shannon Chamberlain, The Atlantic
Get this: Henry Fielding made a smutty fanfic of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and he called it… Shamela.
6. “Killing the Joke: On Andrea Long Chu’s Females” by Elena Comay del Junco, The Point
Like pretty much everyone, I take perverse delight in a good takedown. There have been a lot of spicy takedown reviews already this year— Lauren Oyler on Jia Tolentino, Emily Gould on Meghan Daum, Jennifer Szalai on Katie Roiphe — and I suppose that, technically, this not-exactly-positive review of Andrea Long Chu’s Females could be seen as something like a takedown; but in the end Comay del Junco’s approach is so thoughtful that it just makes me more interested in the book. Sometimes disagreement is not discouragement.
7. “Behind the Green Baize Door” by Alison Light, The London Review of Books
A review of Feminism and the Servant Problem, a history of the political tension between the suffragettes and their maids: “Employers protested against interference in the relations between mistress and maid. Some believed that their servants had it easy — novel-reading was a particular irritant. One cautioned against leaving the suffrage paper lying around the house: it was too sexually explicit and political discussion might give servant girls the wrong idea.”
8. “Opportunity Costs: On Work, Idealism, and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley” by Eryn Loeb, Guernica
Eryn Loeb reflects on her own work history while reviewing Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of selling out in Silicon Valley.
9. “The Beats, the Hungryalists, and the Call of the East” by Akanksha Singh, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Singh reviews Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s The Hungryalists, a book that explores the connection between Allen Ginsberg and the eponymous group of radical Bengali poets. “Their name is in reference to Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of ‘hungry’ in ‘in the sowre hungry tyme’ in his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.”
Happy reading, and good luck! Stay inside if you can!
Hope Reese | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (3,036 words)
“We were London’s scowling youth,” is how narrator Yusuf, whose family came to the city from Pakistan, introduces himself and his peers in Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City. Depicting the struggle of city life from the perspectives of three young second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean, Pakistan, and Ireland — Selvon, Yusuf, and Ardan — and two of their parents, the novel investigates precisely what those “scowling youth” experience in London — a complicated and sometimes hostile place.
The fictional work, which takes place over a 48-hour period, was inspired by the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby, a soldier, by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Islamic extremists. Gunarate tells me he was struck by his “perverse identification” with the killer, and set out on a journey to explore the way violence and extremism can develop in a multicultural city.
Gunaratne tells the story as an insider. As the son of a Sri Lankan immigrant, he grew up in northwest London and has seen firsthand how the city can be viewed from the perspective of the two generations. And in his work as a documentary filmmaker and journalist, he has also become interested in exploring human rights issues, which he says have taught him the habit of “zeroing in on the parts of… stories that most disturb you and provoke a response within you.” Read more…
Iain Sinclair, in the London Review of Books, mourns his constantly-transforming city. There was never just one London, but for Sinclair, London as he understood it is crumbling, and his essay is a loving, fascinating, melancholy, rollicking look at how technology and globalization are transforming urban spaces.
Drifting in a lazy, autopilot trajectory, my own cloud of unknowing, down Bethnal Green Road towards the pop-up shopping hub by the London Overground station at Shoreditch, I register a notice in a window that says: ‘No coffee stored overnight.’ Once upon a time, white vans (for white men) were nervous about their tools and ladders, but now the value is in coffee, barista coffee, gold dust: the marching powder of the shared-desk classes who are hitting it hard in recovered container stacks and bare-brick coffee shops glowing with an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration. Why do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?
That coffee sign was a border marker, preparing me for a series of designated smoking areas, puddles of stubbed-out cigarettes, and a chain of opportunist businesses promoted by oxymorons: FREE CASH, IMPERIAL EQUITY, CITY SHEEPSKINS, RESPONSIBLE GAMBLING, TAPAS REVOLUTION, PROPER HAMBURGER. And of course Sainsbury’s Local. When, in truth, there is no local left. Those signs confirm the dissolution of locality. The last London, Smart City, is nervous about unreformed localism, nuisance quarters with medieval borders clinging to outmoded privileges, like schools, pubs, markets or hospitals hungry for funds and resistant to improving the image of construction.
Below is the first chapter from Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism, and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant, and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtel particulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. Read more…
We asked our contributors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2016. Here they are.
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Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
A writer whose memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, is due from Ecco/Harper Collins in February.
These are stories that don’t compromise—that stand their ground and say come here, because I won’t come to you. And that’s the most valuable thing to read—to go somewhere other than where you are. The characters are dark and twisty; she’s an Arab American Roald Dahl—the world they inhabit likewise whimsical yet treacherous. Her lively staccato use of language is the perfect foil to this darkness, keeping the reader suspended and engaged throughout. It never plods. Never holds your hand to the fire for longer than a few seconds at a time. The title story, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” is one of the strongest in the collection, interweaving ancestry and tradition with contemporary conflict. There’s not a minaret in sight. Not even on the cover.
The story, “A Sailor,” dissects a marriage. A husband refuses to become angry with his wife for having had an affair. The following excerpt shows you what Jarrar’s writing is like. If you don’t like curse words, this isn’t for you. I like curse words done well. Jarrar does them well:
“She fucks a Sailor, a Turkish sailor, the summer she spends in Istanbul. When she comes home to Wisconsin, it takes her three days to come clean about it to her husband.
“He says this doesn’t bother him, and she tells him that it bothers her that it doesn’t bother him. He asks if she prefers him to be the kind of man who is bothered by fleeting moments, and she tells him that yes, she prefers that he be that kind of man. He tells her he thinks she married him because he is precisely the kind of man who doesn’t dwell on fleeting moments, because he is the kind of man who does not hold a grudge. She tells him that holding a grudge and working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor is not the same thing. He agrees that holding a grudge isn’t the same as working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor, but he adds, one’s wife, specifically his own, would never leave him for a sailor, and not a Turkish sailor. In fact, he says, she did not leave him for the Turkish sailor. She is here. So why should he be angry?”
Poetry is often under-recognized—and while Ocean Vuong’s has been recognized by Whiting, poetry needs every opportunity to be read. So I’m laying it down here. This is the one to read. Every poem beats with exigency and passion, and his work is complicated—spanning history and time and blood and heartbreak and hope. And yet there is meaningful silence in the words, too—gaps and pauses in the line breaks and spaces filled with guesses and anticipation and questioning. Vuong is a fan of Li-Young Lee and like Lee, Vuong investigates fathers, mothers, country, and historical pain. But it very well could be that he will make a mark bigger than Lee’s.
From Daily Bread:
“He’ll imagine the softness of bread
as he peels back the wool blanket, raises
her phantom limb to his lips as each kiss
dissolves down her air-light ankles.
& he will never see the pleasure
this brings to her face. Never
her face. Because in my hurry
to make her real, make her
here, I will forget to write
a bit of light into the room.
Because my hands were always brief
& dim as my father’s.
& it will start to rain. I won’t
even think to put a roof over the house—
her prosthetic leg on the nightstand,
the clack clack as it fills to the brim. Listen,
the year is gone. I know
nothing of my country. I write things
down. I build a life & tear it apart
& the sun keeps shining. Crescent
wave. Salt-spray. Tsunami. I have
enough ink to give you the sea
but not the ships, but it’s my book
& I’ll say anything just to stay inside
this skin. Sassafras. Douglas fir.
Sextant & compass…”
If Marshall McLuhan rewrote “Cinderella,” the result might come out looking something like this novel, Stagg’s first. Colleen, an aimless 23 year old who works administering marketing surveys in an anodyne Arizona mall, lives a bleak and listless life, online when she’s not drinking or avoiding the advances of the peeping Tom in her shabby apartment complex. Then she meets Jim, a minor celebrity, “online, it doesn’t matter how…Describing it would be pointless and anyway, you can look it up.” Colleen and Jim fall in love and quickly, as a unit, become rich and very famous. The specifics aren’t clear, and they never need to be: Stagg lays out the truths and the falsehoods of the attention economy brilliantly without them. At the height of her fame, Colleen becomes obsessed with Lucinda, Jim’s ex, her obsession growing more desperate as Colleen’s notoriety inevitably wanes. “I curled around my computer, searching for all the things I’d seen a million times. The views were not growing as steadily, but they were growing, and would always grow, never diminish… I grabbed my phone and muscle memory led me to look up Lucinda’s Twitter. It looked as if all of it had been deleted. How stupid is she? I thought. You can’t really delete any of it.” Stagg’s dark wit, her accurate-to-the-millimeter rendering of the physical and psychological experience of consuming and being consumed by social media, and the emergence of Lucinda as someone whose power comes from her ability to be completely sustained by her own inner life — or at least, appear that way — makes Surveys really special.
The DMV is no longer issuing driver’s licenses and the names of the fish that have gone extinct are crossed out on the walls of sushi restaurants: this is how we know the apocalypse is coming to San Francisco in 1999. There’s the thick perma-smog and a vegetable shortage too, but it is the driver’s license issue that grabs our narrator Michelle’s attention in Black Wave, the latest book from Michelle Tea. She needs a driver’s license to drive her getaway van to Los Angeles and escape the codependent relationships, drugs, and squalor (captured in all their pre-gentrified post-nostalgized charm) of the Mission in the late 90s. When Michelle gets to Los Angeles Black Wave bifurcates: LA Michelle, now sober, is attempting to adapt her unruly, unpublished 500-pg memoir called Black Wave into a screenplay. She is struggling, with sobriety, with the ethics of writing about her life and her loved ones, haunted by her past and by people she has yet to meet (in memoir-land, at the computer where she works every day — yes, there’s an element of metafiction at work). But then the apocalypse comes to contemporary Los Angeles too, the actual irreversible accelerationist climate one we’ve all been in denial about since 1999, in a series of tsunamis that will take out the entire West Coast. The mass suicides begin in New York. Michelle’s brother calls in a panic, begging an incredulous Michelle to turn on the TV and see for herself: “Michelle knew once she turned on her television it would remain on for a very long time.”
While telling a literal apocalypse story, Tea also interrogates other life-ending moments with the warmth and humor she’s known for: sobriety, the loss of a love, the practice (metaphorical suicide, if not real relationship-cide) of narrating one’s life for an audience. But it is the ‘real’ apocalypse that allows ‘real’ Michelle to finally finish her memoir, on the last day of the world: “She could, after all, write only the stories she was meant to write. She could write nothing more than that, nothing more or less perfect. As it turned out, time could not be wasted.” Perhaps it’s too on-the-nose to recommend an apocalypse story right now, but not this one. Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jessica Lustig, Ed Yong, Leslie Jamison, Rosa Lyster, and Geoff Edgers.
Jessica Lustig | The New York Times Magazine | March 24, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,227 words)
“You shouldn’t stay here,” he says, but he gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says.
Ed Yong | The Atlantic | March 25, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,549 words)
“The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.”
Leslie Jamison | New York Review of Books | March 26, 2020 | 6 minutes (1500 words)
A month after filing for divorce, single mom Leslie Jamison contracted COVID-19. She wrote this meditation on single parenthood, loneliness, longing, and frustration while sheltering in place — and sweating out the virus — with her 2-year-old daughter.
Rosa Lyster | London Review of Books | March 25, 2020 | 11 minutes (2,810 words)
A look at another crisis the world is facing: water scarcity. Rosa Lyster examines the water-stressed cities of Cape Town and Mexico City — cities grappling with issues related to climate change, infrastructure, and inequality.
Geoff Edgers | The Washington Post | March 18, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,857 words)
“She tore up a picture of the pope. Then her life came apart. These days, she just wants to make music.”
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.
Anne Thériault | Longreads | December 2019 | 21 minutes (5,424 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.
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Looking for a Queens of Infamy t-shirt or tote bag? Choose yours here.
The year was 54 BC, but not really, because Christ hadn’t been born yet. In Rome, it was 700 ab urbe condita, or 700 years since the founding of the city; at the northern edge of the empire, Julius Caesar was veni, vidi, vici-ing his way into Britain for a second time. In Egypt, it was the 251st year of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and a 15-year-old Cleopatra was scheming. In Judea, which had recently lost its full sovereignty and become a client state of Rome, the year was… who even knows? The Judeans of the time would count it as year 258 in the Era of Contracts, though for Jewish people living after the 12th century, it’s anno mundi 3707. Either way, it was there that a new princess was born into a royal family torn apart by usurpers, civil war, and aggressive foreign meddling. In spite of all the chaos in the Hasmonean household, no one could have imagined that tiny Miriam would one day be that dynasty’s last hope.
Like so many women from ancient history, we have very few concrete facts about Miriam, who would gain wider infamy under the Hellenized version of her name, Mariamne. What little information we do have was recorded by men. Even her birth year is pure speculation, based on the typical ages for engagement and marriage in her culture during the 1st century BCE. What we do know for certain is that things were not going well for the Hasmoneans when Mariamne entered the scene.