“In writing about Benjamin Percy’s werewolf novel, Red Moon, Roxane Gay’s review transforms into a fascinating essay with bite. She sums up the challenge authors face when examining the militarization of everyday life since 2001: ‘It’s a tricky thing to address pressing issues of the day in fiction without making prose do the work of preaching.’ Artistic success has eluded great authors who took the subject head on and Gay suggests that allegory is the platform that can let the author speak loudest. When I started writing my novel The Blondes I didn’t know that is was about these same subjects but by the time it was finished the world had crept in.
“Since writing a novel about a worldwide calamity and how its narrative unspools through the media, I’ve been haunted by its resonances with real events, but tragedy and unspeakable crime have always been documented. Today, we crowd source reflexively filmed camera footage to solve cases, but in the aftermath of the Second World War a Hollywood contingent hunted down and sifted through the propagandists’ own footage to build evidence against the Nazis for the Nuremberg trials. Budd Schulberg was a morally complicated screenwriter and author of the classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? In ‘Budd and Leni’ Bruce Handy tells the story of how Schulberg arrested director Leni Riefenstahl. The story is complex, the material is harrowing, and the facts sometimes blur into strange humor, such as the Communist guard who is also a film critic.”
What are you reading (and loving)? Tell us.
The episode that really pushed me over the edge was one where a single father was looking to move into a tiny home with his tweenage daughter. Frankly, it was a bit repulsive and unseemly, but the father tried to make this bizarre choice palatable by sharing that he and his daughter wanted to use the money they would save traveling around the world. Having traveled a fair amount, I was, as I watched this episode unfold, quite certain there is no wonder, anywhere in the world, that would merit this kind of domestic sacrifice. Alas, the choice was not mine.
Tiny House Hunters isn’t just about judging strangers’ choices (although it is partly about that). It’s also a mechanism for papering over dismal American economic realities.
Often, though, couples and families want to downsize to save money. They say they need or want less space, but what goes unsaid is that they likely can no longer (if they ever could) afford the mortgage on their traditional home. Or they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities where the median price of a home is more than a half-million dollars and well out of reach for a lot of folks.
There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.
The dream of homeownership, now with composting toilets.
Mark Sundeen, writing for Outside, traveled to the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs last summer and talked to some of the tiny house movement’s pioneers, including its “godfather” Jay Shafer. Over a cigarette break in the woods — away from all the tiny space swooners, wannabe-minimalists, and sales reps — Shafer tells him a bit about his design philosophy and the purpose of material objects.
Shafer was raised in a large suburban house in Orange County, California. “I never had a true sense of home,” he said. After attending the University of Iowa, he got a master’s in fine art in New York City. But urban life didn’t suit him. He returned to Iowa City, where he taught art, living in a pickup and later an Airstream. Although he considers himself secular, as an artist he was drawn to sacred symbols and icons. “I got tired of building shrines I couldn’t live in,” he said.
I asked him if he’d been on any of the tiny-house shows.
“I was on Oprah.”
“What was that like?”
“Like watching Oprah on television, but in 3-D.”
During a commercial, she told him that he had inspired her to get rid of one of her mansions. “I wish she would have said it on camera.”
Shafer went on to describe design in a language I had not heard at the Jamboree—or anywhere. “Integrity is my word for God,” he said. It was wrong to conceal structural elements or disguise materials, and purely ornamental features were like a comb-over. Both attempted to convince us that the homeowner (or the hair owner) felt secure but of course revealed insecurity. “My best designs come only when my ego gets out of the way, when the higher power flows through me.” He had a sense of humor about it all, too. “I spent weeks trying to design a dining table that would convert into a coffee table. Finally, I figured out that all I had to do was turn the thing on its side.”
He described himself as a “meaning addict,” always looking for higher significance in material objects. “A gate in a picket fence that opens onto a narrow path that leads through a yard to an open porch that covers a door,” he said, “is a set of symbols we recognize as signposts guiding us through increasingly private territory toward the threshold of someone’s clandestine world.”
I finally got it. I had not understood why Williams’s house felt so authentic while so many of the blocks on wheels felt awkward or false. This subculture, although it seemed to be about nifty gadgets and Murphy beds, was at its heart the expression of our longing to find our place in the universe, to become as beautiful and functional as nature itself.
To understand the tiny house movement, Mark Sundeen attends its big annual gathering—the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs—to learn from its luminaries.
Here are four pieces exploring different approaches to space and home—from living on wheels to escaping the grid.
For my husband and me, 2014 has been all about downsizing: we got rid of 80 percent of our belongings, moved out of San Francisco and into my parents’ home, and are currently building a 131-square-foot tiny house on wheels. While this path to minimalism is winding, our goal remains clear: to experiment and create a home that makes sense for us. Here are four pieces exploring different approaches to space and home—from living on wheels to escaping the grid. Read more…
[Fiction] A family of children escape starvation in North Korea:
“The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a beached cart, above the lintel of the post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.
“The younger brother Choecheol ran ahead. Like a child, Woncheol thought, frowning, though he too was still a child, an eleven-year-old with a body withering on two years of boiled tree bark, mashed roots, the occasional grilled rat and fried crickets on a stick.”
Rani Neutill | Longreads | May 2019 | 11 minutes (2,723 words)
It is day three of the writing workshop. I sit in a small room with a table fit for ten. The chairs, blue and plastic, are uncomfortable. The table, smooth. The walls, buttercream. I cram writing, reading, and workshopping into four hours a day. Each morning a slight wind breaks through the New England summer heat and wafts salt through the air. It reminds me that the ocean is not far away. I am grateful to have five days away from waiting tables and teaching so I can learn and write.
Covered in greens, reds, and orange, I wear tank tops that expose my tattoos, that make eyes follow the lines of my decorated arms. My skin has grown into a deep brown from the sun’s finesse, from the batches of melanin that lay under my flesh, from my mother’s Indian blood.
All my classmates are white.
I have meticulously selected this date, smack in the middle of the week to present my work. I wanted time to get acclimated, to know my fellow classmates, to feel comfortable around them. When I walked into the room on the first day, I felt my difference, my race, my arms marked with color. I knew my story would be different. How questions of racism and immigration might not pertain to the other members of my class. The eight pages I workshop are from the memoir I’ve been writing for three years about my mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother and the way she tragically died. A memoir about the silence around mental illness within South Asian communities. A memoir about the costs of beauty defined by racism, a quintessential Bengali story about the impact of the forces of migration and colonialism.
The teacher is intelligent and kind and has encouraged helpful criticism, beginning with an author’s strengths. She does not like the Iowa Workshop type of annihilating appraisal. Students talk about what they like. Then a fellow workshopper says,
“I guess I’m the only one who hated this piece.”
My skin combusts into tendrils from the force of his statement. My back sharpens. Eyes wide, I turn towards this man. I am thankful there is a student between us so I don’t have to be near his translucent skin, his bald head shimmering under the fluorescent lights. Sweat beading on his brow. His long grey and red beard, his attempt to look distinct. His small silver earrings, his attempt to look edgy.
The class takes a quick breath, exhaling after two Mississippi seconds. It is a pause and silence that registers what was said. That impenetrable word, hate.
“I found myself furiously crossing things out and correcting grammar, fixing sentences and wondering when this writer learned to speak English.”
I wonder if he has British blood. I was a professor of postcolonial literature for sixteen years. I am familiar with the white man’s interrogation of colonized peoples’ ability to speak English. I read and taught Freud and Lacan to analyze the white man’s words; Kipling, Macaulay, EM Forster all come to mind.
I am livid. I was born in the United States. English is my first language and I speak it fluently, but am embarrassed because my relationship with the language is fraught. My mother’s English was fractured. Her accent muddled white people’s perception of her. She tried hard to rid herself of that accent, to sound like a “real” American. As she grew older, her Indian accent crept back in and her English became broken.