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Last month we introduced the (completely optional) Longreads Membership, and we’ve been thrilled with the response so far. I wanted to personally thank everyone for their support and encouragement.
We’re also excited to announce the first official perk for our Longreads Members: a free, three-month digital subscription to the New York Review of Books.
The NYRB team—who have supported us from the beginning—are offering this perk to all current Longreads Members, as well as the next 100 people who purchase a one-year Longreads Membership.
We hope to continue offering occasional free perks to Longreads Members as a thank-you for your support of our service. It might be a digital subscription, like today’s perk, or it might just be something we think you’ll like because you have really great taste.
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…
David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Probably I was in the war.
—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)
A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.
In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”
At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”
Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.
“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…
We asked our book editors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2015. Here they are.
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I read this book in one fast gulp, anxious fingers poised to flip the page. In Kirk Lynn’s debut novel, a band of young runaways moves swiftly through the suburbs, squatting in foreclosed houses and in the homes of unwitting vacationers, wild eyes trained on the promise of a self-made utopia. The thrills and pleasures of this new society are the benign trappings of suburbia (well-stocked refrigerators, lavender soap, the privacy of closed doors) coupled with the first bright licks of freedom. As the pack grows tighter, defining the boundaries of its own morals and ideology, it also grows more feral. Unbridled idealism and independence begin to unravel into violent and irreparable ends.
Structurally, Rules for Werewolves seems to borrow from Lynn’s background as a playwright: the book is composed of alternating sections, some of which are monologues from shifting perspectives; the rest is raw dialogue, high velocity and high stakes, deftly capturing the insecurities, intoxication, and desperation of people determined to survive on their own terms. From the pack’s pastoral vision to Kirk’s unsettling depiction of the waning American suburbs—littered with empty houses, an echo of unrealized aspirations—the book reminds that utopia’s volatility comes always from within. Read more…
The late James Salter’s last piece for the New York Review of Books, on David McCullough’s Wright brothers biography.
At The New York Review of Books, former New York Times reporter—and current salon co-owner—Richard Bernstein takes the paper to task for its much-talked-about two–part 7000-word exposé on the exploitation and abuse of employees at nail salons in New York City.
He says the article—which led to a state-wide investigation and a new law instituted by Governor Andrew Cuomo—misrepresents the salon industry as a whole by focusing mainly on one undocumented and unlicensed worker. He also suggests it wasn’t as thoroughly reported as author Sarah Maslin Nir claims—although apparently he didn’t reach out to her for comment.
As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based….
… How to account for these evident flaws, the one-sidedness of the Times story? Recently the Times’s own Nick Kristof wrote in a column that “one of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it,” and, he might have added, consciously or not, ignore anecdotes and other information that doesn’t. The narrative chosen by the Times, what might be called the narrative of wholesale injustice, is one of the most powerful and tempting in journalism. Certainly, as Mr. Baquet put it, it had “impact.” It was read, he told an audience in mid-June, by 5 million people, which is five times the readership of the Sunday print edition, and produced an immediate government response.
Surely, Bernstein’s exposé-on-the-exposé isn’t the last word. Nir and others at the Times have taken to Twitter, and Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo has Storified that activity and other developing aspects of the story. In a tweet, Nir suggests that Times executive editor Dean Baquet has a response in the works.
Stay tuned to find out whether it might in fact be okay to get inexpensive manicures after all…
Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)
* * *
The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves. Read more…
Dear Thief is, without a doubt, stronger and more raw, the book her fans knew she could write. But just when the world should have behaved as if it had been waiting for that very novel to arrive, Harvey’s career seemed to lose momentum.
Her editor Dan Franklin explains, a little despairingly, that “the really difficult thing about her is that she writes serious books, which is not to the modern taste. People like easy-peasy books that slip down without any trouble. How do you have a career in 2015 writing really thoughtful, philosophical books? In a way, the miracle was that The Wilderness worked—not that the other two didn’t.”
And so, Harvey finds herself at the heart of good fiction’s very modern problem. Not so long ago, everyone thought the main threat to publishing was the ebook. But that hasn’t turned out be true: ebooks have been predominantly aimed at commercial fiction, and have, for the most part, worked well. The much greater difficulty, now that bookshops are in decline and newspapers have increasingly little space, is how to tell readers books exist at all. Amazon doesn’t champion anything; Waterstones buys very little upfront and only gets behind a book once it has already shown signs of life. As Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK, tells me, “The challenge in book publishing is not digital. It is how do you get the next great book noticed?”
-Gaby Wood on why Samantha Harvey’s book might have landed with a thud when it was released in the UK. Dear Thief failed to sell despite incredible reviews. The novel was originally released last year by Atavist Books in the U.S. and is being re-released next month by Ecco.
Charles D’Ambrosio | Loitering | November 2014 | 25 minutes (5,836 words)
I was seven and had a leather purse full of silver dollars, both of which, the purse and the coins, I considered valuable. I wanted them stored in the bank. At the time, the bank had an imposing landmark status in my map of the world, in part because it shared the same red brick as the public school, the two most substantial buildings in our town. As a Catholic school kid I did a lot of fundraising in the form of selling candy bars, Christmas stamps and fruitcakes, and my favorite spot for doing business was outside the bank, on Friday afternoons, because that was payday. Working men came to deposit their checks and left the bank with a little cash for the weekend. Today, that ritual is nearly gone, its rhythms broken, except for people on welfare, who still visit banks and pack into lines, waiting for tellers, the first of every month. But back then I’d set my box of candy on the sidewalk and greet customers, holding the door for them like a bellhop. Friends of mine with an entirely different outlook on life tried to sell their candy at the grocery store, but I figured that outside the supermarket people might lie or make excuses, claiming to be broke; but not here, not at the bank, for reasons that seemed obvious to me: this was the headquarters of money. Most of the men were feeling flush and optimistic, flush because they were getting paid and would soon have money in their pockets, optimistic because the workweek was over and they could forget what they had done for the money. On their way in I’d ask if they wanted to buy a candy bar and they’d dip a nod and smile and say with a jaunty promissory confidence that I should catch them on the way out. And I did. I sold candy bars like a fiend. Year after year, I won the plastic Virgin Marys and Crucifixes and laminated holy cards that were given away as gifts to the most enterprising sales-kids at school. I liked the whole arrangement. On those Friday afternoons and early evenings, I always dressed in my salt-and-pepper corduroy pants and saddle shoes and green cardigan, a school uniform that I believed made me as recognizable to the world as a priest in his soutane, and I remember feeling righteous, an acolyte doing God’s work, or the Church’s. Money touched everyone in town, quaintly humanizing them, and I enjoyed standing outside the bank, at the center of civic life. This was my early education into the idea of money. Read more…