When compiling the reading list this week, I was struck harder than I have been so far by the sensation that time has compressed, or flattened, or leveled out, or I’m not entirely sure what the right spatial metaphor is here, but what I mean is that the time I inhabit feels in no way appreciably different from other times that other people have inhabited. When I read about George Washington fleeing Philadelphia to escape the yellow fever, that doesn’t feel meaningfully different from now. When I read that Emma Goldman co-owned an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, it doesn’t feel uncanny, it just sort of feels like, “Yeah, well, one has to make a living! Anarchist or not, the rent is always due!” Or when I read in A Distant Mirror about the general dismay caused by the corruption and dumbing down of the clergy that resulted from the selling of church appointments to the highest bidder in the 14th century, I feel like I am on the exact same wavelength as Henry of Hereford, who wrote, “Look… at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” They had child bishops; we have Jared Kushner. It’s all one; it’s all bad.
And it seems like a lot of critics are in a similar headspace. Over the weeks, I feel like I’ve watched essayists dig deeper and deeper for “moments to which this moment compares” and what they’ve inadvertently proven is not just that this moment can be compared to so many others, but that all those moments can also be compared to each other as well! George Washington’s enlightened 18th century, Camus’ disastrous 20th, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th: they’ve all got one thing in common. The secret history of the world rears its ghastly head to reveal what we almost forgot: disease is king.
1. “Pandemics Go Hand in Hand with Conspiracy Theories” by Frederick Kaufman, The New Yorker
Frederick Kaufman writes that when yellow fever hit the newly united States in the 1790s, it led to the development of a new literary style — the American gothic, pioneered by the grieving Charles Brockden Brown in “a million words [that] poured from his pen” from 1798 to 1800, including Wieland, a book about a disembodied voice that drives people insane — as well as a new political style, the much written about “paranoid style” of American politics. Just after the fever ravaged New York in the late 1790s, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, which had formed in Bavaria in 1776 and been officially banned in 1784, began to proliferate, building into a sort of public panic. Charles Brockden Brown likewise contributed to this new trend; his novel Ormond; or, the Secret Witness, sounds like a Bourne Identity for the 18th century, with the Illuminati playing the global-conspiratorial role of the CIA — or, in this year’s paranoia parlance, the WHO.
2. “Graciliano Ramos and the Plague” by Padma Viswanathan, The Paris Review
Padma Viswanathan writes about coming to the realization that Graciliano Ramos, the giant of Brazilian letters whose novel São Bernardo she recently translated, was motivated to return as a youth from Rio to his remote hometown of Palmeira dos Índios not by disappointment in his lackluster career in journalism, as she originally assumed, but because plague had broken out at home, killing four of his family members in a single day. This insight led Viswanthan to consider how the rest of Ramos’ life’s work — in local government and in literature — was driven by notions of good hygiene, including his translation of Camus’ The Plague.
3. “The First State-Approved North Korean Novel in English” by Esther Kim, Lit Hub
Esther Kim interviews Immanuel Kim, translator of Friend by Paek Namnyong. Immanuel Kim made it his mission to find and translate a popular, non-propagandistic (as in not state-related) North Korean “bestseller” (as in widely read, not widely bought — in North Korea, print runs are limited, but worn copies of Friend, first published in 1988, continue to be passed from hand to hand). “When I started my PhD at UC Riverside in 2000, I was reading South Korean literature minus the colonial period [1910-1945]. All of my colleagues were doing the same, and I wondered, What more can I add to this field? What about North Korea? It was a crazy jump. All my friends were like You’re crazy, man….I started making a personal database of authors that moved me….Then I started looking for stories that were more relatable to the English-speaking world. I read almost a thousand.”
4. “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A.’s Greatest Poets” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
Dan Chiasson writes about the life and work of poet Wanda Coleman. A new volume of her selected poems, Wicked Enchantment, was published last month. “Coleman…was one of the great menders in American verse: she found the extra wear in old forms like the sonnet and rummaged for new forms in everyday material, like aptitude tests, medical reports, and want ads. Poets sometimes brag about their fearsome powers of transformation; Coleman, beset by hardship for much of her life, kept her boasts closer to the bone. ‘I scrape bottom,’ she wrote…”
5. “Food for Thought: Ben Katchor’s Paradise Lost” by J. Hoberman, Bookforum
Ben Katchor’s books are exquisite in an old-timey way that books generally aren’t anymore, sometimes to the point of baroque bewilderment. In this review, J. Hoberman gamely attempts to explain what this latest one, The Dairy Restaurant, is “about.” As with many of Katchor’s books, the gist is that Katchor uses his deep knowledge of niche histories — in this case, Jewish-owned dairy restaurants in New York City and all tangential topics (for instance, did you know Emma Goldman was in the ice cream business?) — to create an almost-alternate history: as in, you’re pretty sure everything Katchor says is true, but the emphasis, the rhythms of history, become fixated on something so deeply unusual — radical dairy consumption — that you become possessed by an alternate vision of what has already transpired.
Sign up to have this week’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.
6. “At the Clinic” by Sally Rooney, The White Review
A perfect short story by Sally Rooney, which was originally published in The White Review in 2016, and features characters from her novel-cum-show-cum-thing-people-love-to-hate-for-clout Normal People. The Review made the story available online for the first time last week. “People love all kinds of things: their friends, their parents. Misunderstandings are inevitable.”
7. “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” by Jodi Dean, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Jodi Dean contemplates a question posed by McKenzie Wark in Capital Is Dead: “What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse?” Welcome to neofeudalism, fellow serfs!
8. “We’re All Preppers Now” by Heather Souvaine Horn, The New Republic
Heather Souvaine reviews Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, a book about prepper subculture, and finds herself understandably more sympathetic to the preppers than the author probably expected the reader would be when he was writing the book. “How do you decide what response is ‘too much,’ when everything we’re currently doing would have been considered too much a few months ago?”
9. “Bournemouth” by Andrew O’Hagan, The London Review of Books
A long, lovely, melancholy essay about the friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. “I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,” James wrote after Stevenson’s death, “but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him … He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.”
10. “How ‘Jakarta’ Became the Codeword for US-Backed Mass Killing” by Vincent Bevins, The New York Reviews of Books
An excerpt adapted from Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method, which makes the argument that the mass murder of communists in Indonesia and Brazil in 1964 and 1965 was a decisive turning point in the Cold War (and a turn for the worse in the history of the world, laying the groundwork for many genocides to come) that is little remembered today because “the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the cold war was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.”
Every week I make a list on our Bookshop page of all the books and authors mentioned in all of the readings in the newsletter this week. If you feel like taking a look-see, here is this week’s massive reading list.
I feel like most of my reading this past week was preoccupied by power: who has it, who can get it, and what it looks like. The overall arc of the revelation seems to be that no matter how acutely we are aware of the answers to the first and second questions (1. the rich; 2. the rich), the answer to the third can still feel surprising: what power looks like, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to keep buying food at jacked up prices during a food shortage. “Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops,” writes Camus in The Plague. “The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing.” “We’re all in this together” becomes a pipe dream for Camus in The Plague almost as quickly as it did for us in 2020; it turns out maintaining normalcy during a crisis is the ultimate show of elite strength — even, or especially, at the expense of the rest of us. In that vein, I found Samuel Rutter’s manual for living a 19th-century decadent lifestyle, as described in the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans, to be particularly bonkers and provoking; a perfect covid read. After all, a morose eccentric living alone in the countryside and indulging in simple pleasures may feel relatably disheveled and melancholy during quarantine, but of course by the very fact that he can afford not to work, we know he must be quite rich. Only the rich get to drop out of society with everyman style. Sooner or later, for most of us, the other shoe will drop.
Power didn’t only come up this week in reviews of books by dour Frenchmen, either! It’s there in Maisy Card’s description of the way she felt, while conducting archival research for her debut novel, when she read accounts of enslaved women and girls who found ways to rebel against servitude and sexual violence (“They were victims of course, but it was also comforting to know that, as brutalized as they were, many of them still found the strength to disobey”); it’s there in Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, which explores the twisting violence enacted by “federal language” against Native people during the Termination era, a time when the government tried to eliminate tribal existence through bureaucracy and mandates; and of course it’s the constant thread woven through a New Yorker review of the latest book by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear seemed to presage the Rodney King Riots and the Woolsey Fire respectively, and whose The Monster at Our Door, about the potential for an avian flu pandemic, apparently scared him so badly that he couldn’t keep a copy in his house. Davis’ latest, the memoir-ish Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is intended as a guide for young radicals, although its lessons are somewhat crushingly framed as a tutorial on failure: “I realized eight years ago… that the experience of that generation had to be recovered, and recovered in a way that would provide lessons and balance sheets to the current generation of activists… To understand what people fought for and what strategies they used and why, at the end of the day, we were defeated in every important sense.”
The fact that nearly every article in the newsletter this week seems to be about power could of course just be my own preoccupations at work, but I also can’t shake this feeling that a leaf has been turned, and we are on a crash course with something brand new — or perhaps very, very old. So much of what has happened lately has been completely unfathomable (even at the same time that it was totally predictable, if that makes any sense at all) but I simply can’t wrap my head around this thing where people are forced to go back to work when the virus is still widely circulating and untraced. This seems untenable? I know Americans are a surprisingly meek people when it comes to doing the bidding of our bosses, but it seems like a bridge too far, even for us.
I think something’s going to happen to stop it. Or maybe I just hope it does.
1. “A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation” by Samuel Rutter, The Paris Review
Samuel Rutter scours Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classic of French decadent literature Against Nature for advice on how to live the way we must now — that is, like we are eccentric recluses “[taking] pleasure in a life of studious decrepitude.”
2. “Pointing the Finger” by Jacqueline Rose, The London Review of Books
Jacqueline Rose revisits Camus’ The Plague and re-examines old arguments about whether it is lax in assigning blame. “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”
3. “Artforum” by César Aira, Lit Hub
An excerpt from César Aira’s Artforum. And yes, the entire excerpt is about how one man’s copy of Artforum magazine has gotten very, very wet.
4. “Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Night Watchman’” by Thomas J. Millay, The Los Angeles Review of Books
This review of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel The Night Watchman situates the book in its historical context of the Termination era, when the federal government attempted to erase Native identity and nationhood by “giving” Native Americans citizenship. Reviewer Thomas J. Millay writes that the novel draws a purposeful contrast between the plainspoken language of the story’s protagonists — members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians — and the deceitful speech of the federal government. “Federal language twists and turns, appearing good on its surface but in fact initiating great evil.”
Sign up to have this week’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.
5. “Maisy Card: ‘There is this hazy quality to my family history that no amount of research can clarify.’” by Mickie Meinhardt, Guernica
Mickie Meinhardt interviews Maisy Card about her novel These Ghost Are Family, which is based on 12 years of archival research about her family’s history in Jamaica and the legacy of slavery. “I can easily make a character’s anger my own, and I’ll find myself walking around with those feelings after working on the book, as if I forgot that I was writing about fictional people.”
6. “We’re All Living in the Bathroom Now” by Annabel Paulsen, Electric Literature
This reflection on what Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom (an incredible novella about a man who lives in his bathroom and refuses to ever leave it) can teach us about quarantine is, you may have noticed, the THIRD time a sort of nihilistic Frenchman has appeared in the reading list this week. Which is pretty remarkable considering I haven’t even mentioned the Houellebecq thing.
7. “Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe” by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker
Dana Goodyear reviews Mike Davis’ movement history Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties and asks him, the oracle of L.A. apocalypse, what to worry about next. The answer is less than reassuring for Angelenos, I assume: “Davis kept worrying it over, the alternative ending that might reorder everything again. ‘What if the big one happened now?’ he said. I’ve already plundered my earthquake kits for face masks and hand sanitizer. And now Davis has said my midnight fear out loud.”
8. “The Stages of Not Going on T” by Danny M. Lavery, The New Inquiry
A gorgeous piece of writing excerpted from Danny M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You. “Oh, I don’t want to go on T. That’s not what this is. I can see where you got the idea, I suppose, but I’m afraid hormones simply aren’t for me. I don’t even want the ones I have! I’ll never go on testosterone, but it’s simply wonderful for you. You look great. Better than ever, honestly. If I were stuck in a room for the rest of my life and could only look at one thing for some reason, it would be you (I hope that’s not weird to say), but that’s really not the same thing. I just want you to go on hormones and for me to be able to watch you do it.”
9. “Making My Moan” by Irina Dumitrescu, The London Review of Books
Irina Dumitrescu reviews a very scholarly sounding book of absolutely incredible medieval smut, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “Gloriously, the poem ‘I pray yow maydens every chone’ features a merchant offering his podynges (‘sausages’) to a group of young women. ‘Will ye have of the puddings come out of the pan?’ he asks, and they reply firmly: ‘No, I will have a pudding that grows out of a man.’”
10. “Are We Seeing a New Movement to Organize Publishing?” by Corinne Segal, Lit Hub
An interview with Amy Wilson, who runs the Twitter account Book Worker Power, which she made as a more direct-action oriented response to the emergence of the popular satirical Publishers Weakly account. (You can read an interview with the anonymous people who run that account on Electric Literature. I believe they gave this interview just before their first two cancelings, which came in kind of admirably quick succession.)
We’ve been watching a lot of movies lately — uh, just like everybody else on the entire planet — and there’s this particular kind of moment that I get really excited about (like, I start poking my boyfriend really hard and I say “It’s happening!!” a bunch of times, which I’m sure he loves) that is only ever guaranteed to happen in low budget movies, though it can happen in any movie. I call it the B-movie storytelling moment. It’s that moment in a B-movie (duh) when there is clearly something totally insane the filmmakers want to film, but they don’t have the budget for it, so they just have a character describe it at length instead.
Of course, sometimes this is simply done on purpose, for the effect. (Which, in my opinion, is a very awesome effect; awesome enough to make me just absolutely bother my boyfriend every time it happens, which, again, I am certain he adores.) But sometimes you can tell that the director clearly would rather have just filmed it. The fun part is guessing which moments are intentional and which are born of budgetary necessity — and realizing that maybe, functionally, there is no difference!
One of the most effective instances of a movie storytelling moment, to give an example pretty much everybody remembers, is when Robert Shaw spends an uncanny, uninterrupted several minutes giving a firsthand account of the (true!) story of the 1945 mass shark attack on the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis right before the climactic final shark-battle of Jaws. It’s such a memorably unsettling moment because the story Shaw’s character tells is a thousand times scarier and more messed up than anything dramatized in the movie. It compels the audience to imagine something way worse than the movie has the ability to show us.
So, yeah, I’ve been on the lookout for storytelling moments in all the movies we’ve been watching during lockdown. My favorite so far is in Night of the Living Dead, when, not long after Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea meet up in the farmhouse, Jones’ character gives a not-at-all-paying-attention O’Dea a long, detailed account of an encounter he had earlier that day with zombies at a gas station. The story he tells is noticeably, almost comically, beyond the scope of the lowtech flick — it involves, as I recall, zombies jumping onto a careening gas tanker truck (that is also being driven by a zombified guy? sorry I can’t find a clip but I think that might be what happens) that bursts into flame, after which Jones steals a pickup truck and mows down dozens of zombies in order to escape. It’s by far the most action that happens in the movie, and it’s all off-screen.
Lockdown is, of course, an uncanny time to become obsessed with the uncanniest moments in film. Although, to be fair, stories-within-stories have sort of always been my thing — like, give me a Bolaño novel that starts with a guy walking into a bar, and then another guy starts telling him a story, and the rest of that novel is just the second guy telling that story and you never even hear from the first guy again, and I’m blissed out, I’m happy. That’s the good stuff, to me. But this film thing feels, right now, sort of different from that. It’s not just a wacky way of taking a narrative delightfully off the rails. It’s a dispatch. It’s usually addressed nearly head on toward the camera, as an unbroken monologue, as though it’s being delivered directly to the viewer: a dispatch from outside the edges of the movie.
I don’t know what it reminds me of, exactly. Is it that I have been receiving little dispatches just like that? People in little boxes on these Zoom calls. Snatches of sound passing on the streets. A photo of corpses being piled up on the bed in a sleep study room in a hospital in Queens. Horrifying stories, from outside my narrative, way worse than anything this B movie life of mine has shown me, so far. Or something else altogether; is it more like, I am longing for that uncanny moment in a (real-life!) conversation when the other person suddenly tells a startling story? Honestly, there’s nothing like it; nothing like how weird things can get, sometimes, surprisingly, when you’re just talking to someone else, someone you don’t know very well.
I guess I miss the way other people can be surprising. Doing your own thing all day, you can start to forget that about them? I’m lucky I have my boyfriend here. I can tell he tries to come up with something new for me everyday. I am very lucky. I guess that’s what I’m thinking of, today.
1. “Don’t Look For Patient Zeros” by Scott W. Stern, The New Republic
A recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily about the supposed corona “Patient Zero” of New Jersey prompted pushback from several public figures, most notably Richard A. McKay, author of Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, who responded by writing an essay debunking the entire “Patient Zero” concept. In this review, Stern fleshes out the history of the idea of “Patient Zero,” explaining how McKay’s book, which came out in 2017, served as rebuttal to Randy Shilts’ classic work of nonfiction about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, which notoriously vilified Canadian flight attendant Gaétan Dugas as the “source” of HIV in the U.S.
2. “Joyelle McSweeney’s Poetry of Catastrophe” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
When reviewing Joyelle McSweeney’s devastating two-part book of poetry, Toxicon and Arachne — part one written during her pregnancy and part two written after the death of the baby — Dan Chiasson encounters a sickly aesthetic fit for the Age of the Virus, in which “nature is ‘poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.’ The words of the living commingle sickeningly with those of the dead… prior language takes hold of a poem by seepage or contamination, in the stealthy way that ‘bugs, viruses, weeds and mold’ do, going about their relentless work.”
3. “Like No One They’d Ever Seen” by Ed Park, The New York Review of Books
Ed Park writes about the “ghostly” place held in the American canon by Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, an autobiographical memoir first published in 1937, which was rereleased yet again by Penguin Classics last year.
4. “The Elephant” by Chan Chi Wa, Lit Hub
A story about a missing elephant. Excerpted from That We May Live, an anthology of Chinese dystopic fiction.
Sign up to have this week’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.
5. “As Clean as Rage” by Nadja Spiegelman, The New York Review of Books
Nadja Spiegelman surveys the work of the radical French writer Virginie Despentes, whose Vernon Subutex trilogy is in the midst of being released in the U.S. To give you a taste of Despentes’ iconoclasm, Spiegelman writes that, after her first sensational novel Rape Me was published in French, “The French press hurled themselves at Despentes … They tried to cast her as the girl who’d been saved from sleaze by the grace of her talents, but she refused the role, insisting that the best years of her life were the ones before she’d been ‘discovered’ … When a journalist asked her if turning her first trick had felt like violating the ultimate taboo, she responded, ‘Much less so than my first television appearance.’”
6. “The People Who Profited Off the Trail of Tears” by Caitlin Fitz, The Atlantic
Caitlin Fitz reviews Claudio Sant’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, a book about the bankers who profited from the theft of Native homes. “[Sant] follows the money, exhaustively researching company correspondence and government records to show how bankers in Boston and London financed the dirty work of dispossession in collaboration with southern speculators. The result is a haunting story of racialized cruelty and greed, which came to define a pivotal period in U.S. and indigenous history alike.”
7. “The Rise of the Lurker” by Adrian Daub, The New Republic
In a review of Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User — which imagines the lurker as a kind of twenty-first century flaneur — Adrian Daub writes that now, in the Age of the Virus, many of us, the inessential us, have become real-life lurkers.
Stay well and sanitize your groceries,
“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.
Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *