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This Week in Books: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

Theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy depicted in a Roman mosaic. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

[If you’d like to browse all the books mentioned in the newsletter this week, you can do it on our Bookshop page, because I enjoy lists, especially lists about other lists, so I spent a few hours making one. -DS]

Dear Reader,

On Mother’s Day my mom told me that, still, no one in her office is wearing a mask — not when the employees are alone together. She has a public-facing job at a cemetery; through the clientele, as well, calamity stalks her. Grieving families during an epidemic should arouse our empathy, but there is one family that has done its best to test the limits of my pity: a large family of seven, unmasked, who all at once entered the little cemetery office where my mother works, and grew belligerent when asked to leave, and spoke angrily, and spread pestilence and decay upon her, the woman helping them grieve.

Alone together, the cemetery workers don’t wear masks; they do not wear masks unless customers enter; the customers who enter are often unmasked. The masks come on and off like sock and buskin in a Greek play. When it ends, I will know for sure whether it’s been a tragedy or a comedy.

In these inconstant times, I have been thinking of giving up on all these measured scientific and sociological studies of plague times that I ordered a few weeks ago, and which rest on my desk in a talismanic pile to ward off disease, and instead reading only comedies of suffering; well, I guess all comedy derives from suffering, but I mean the very blackest humor written about the very worst of times. It seems to be the only mood that fits as the virus spreads through the White House and the states “open” and my mother masks and unmasks at the cemetery. I could reread Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, which I’ve mentioned before in the newsletter, although I didn’t mention that it’s funny. (Maybe then it didn’t seem so funny.) I could reread Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. You could read them, too, if you’re in the mood to laugh at something that isn’t funny.

Or if not comedy, then horror. A phrase from a book occurs to me when I think of my mother and the mourners at her cemetery. Or when I see anyone without a mask. In R.W. Chambers’ seminal work of cosmic horror The King in Yellow, four of the stories are interlocking; they each reference a play called The King in Yellow that, rumor has it, drives readers insane when they get to the second act. Only two brief excerpts from the play appear in the book, which makes sense: in the book, the play is banned all over the world, but spreading nonetheless.

The phrase that recurs to me is from this fragment of the play:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

I’m sure you can guess the part that strikes a nerve. But anyway that’s just me. I’m sure we all have one. Some strange little phrase that keeps coming back, again and again, to our growing horror.

1. “Cooking with Giovanni Boccaccio” by Valerie Stivers, The Paris Review

Valerie Stivers prepares a fascinating spread from The Decameron and consults The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? to find out exactly what kind of turning point one could expect a global pandemic to be. “‘The Decameron’ loathes sanctimony, tramples sacred cows, and punishes corruption. It takes elites less seriously and celebrates a cast of characters much more diverse than would previously have been allowed. By observing humanity and the world more realistically, it ushers in a new era of scholarship and reason—the Renaissance, no less.”

2. “Sleight of Hand: On Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’ and ‘Exquisite Cadavers’” by Stephanie Sy-Quia, The Los Angeles Review of Books

A review of two novels by Meena Kandasamy. The first, When I Hit You, “reveal[s] abusive homes as the absurdist performance sets they are: where everyday objects drift loose from their original uses …. where the players know their parts are a matter of life or death”; the second, Exquisite Cadavers, as reviewer Stephanie Sy-Quia writes, is a clever critique of how the first book was received. Reminiscent of Suki Kim’s complaint that her excellent Without You There Is No Us was labeled a memoir rather than a work of journalism, rendering it ineligible for certain journalism prizes, among other concrete consequences, Exquisite Cadavers reacts to the delegitimizing way in which When I Hit You was received as a memoir rather than a novel; “its content was valorized over its form… all too frequently, the fate of women and people of color.”

3. “When James Baldwin Wrote About the Atlanta Child Murders” by Casey Cep, The New Yorker

In light of a new HBO documentary about the Atlanta Child Murders, Casey Cep revisits James Baldwin’s writing on the case, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Cep looks at how the piece came to be (it was no small feat for a black editor at Playboy to lure Baldwin back to the American South) and how prescient, as always, Baldwin’s argument was. He did not believe that the police’s suspect, a young gay black man, was guilty; he wasn’t sure there was a serial killer at work at all. Instead “Baldwin…. used his coverage of the child murders to argue that the crimes were representative of the way that the city and the country still failed to protect black lives. In the eyes of David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’ is ‘to the aftermath of the “civil rights” movement what “The Fire Next Time” had been to its heyday.’”

4. “Making a Mess of the World: On Hao Jingfang’s ‘Vagabonds’” by Virginia L. Conn, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Virginia L. Conn writes that Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds may be the first work of Chinese sci-fi marketed in the West that has incorporated the fact that “Chinese sci-fi” is now being marketed in the West (ever since the runaway success of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem) into its social commentary; the story features “an aggressively communitarian Mars” and an Earth defined by “insularity and possessive intellectual property laws,” and it revolves around the ways in which characters from each world seem to misunderstand the alien world as well as their own. Conn says this bifurcated effect makes Vagabonds a genuinely Sino-Western work of sci-fi, written with both audiences in mind.

5. “Annie Ernaux’s Object Lessons: Braiding Identity Through Time” by Mary Hawthorne, Lit Hub

Mary Hawthorne’s review of Annie Ernaux’s The Years seems a little late out of the gate, since the book was first published in translation several years ago, but I found its reflections on consumerism to be really interesting during this time. Like all of us, I’ve been shocked by the spectacle of some (mostly white seems like?) Americans claiming they have a dire need to consume remarkably trivial things (and to be served, but I think that’s a separate, particularly racialized aspect of this uniquely American madness), a need which feels so urgent to them that they think it must be a human right. Hawthrone writes that, in The Years, a novel about a family’s evolution over the course of the 20th century, consumerism is a mechanism which erases the past and the family members’ connection to one another. “….objects, especially long-held ones, contain memories, grounding us implicitly in reality; once discarded, so, too, are the memories, along with the reality. [Ernaux] writes: ‘The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.’” Strange to think that being surrounded by their own memories for too long is driving my countrymen insane.

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6. “The Weight of Certain News” by André Naffis-Sahely, Poetry

Garous Abdolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour “is a page-turner,” writes André Naffis-Sahely, which is always a promising epithet for a collection of poetry. “‘One-Way Ticket,’ for instance, is prompted by the discovery of a bunch of one-way train tickets inside the speaker’s pocket. At first, the poem focuses on the lyricism inspired by this unexpected find: ‘Oh, all the one-way tickets! / I haven’t found anything / more sorrowful than you / in the pockets of the world.’ But then it concludes with this arresting image: ‘—You pound the windowpanes of this train to no avail. / In vain you hurl your voice to the other side of the window. / We / are the actors in a silent film.’”

7. “‘Unless We Make Some Place’: On Andy Croft’s ‘The Years of Anger: The Life of Randall Swingler’” by Robert Chandler, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Robert Chandler reviews Andy Croft’s The Years of Anger, a biography of Randall Swingler, a British poet who Chandler writes has long been erased from the British canon because of his commitment to communism. Swingler is best remembered for the poetry he wrote as a soldier in WWII. Shortly after the war was over, he wrote:

It is only the bone that is dead. The earth is their flesh
And every year grows green in the sloughing of grief.
All they have lost is fear and the crooked bone.

But in me only the bone is alive, must watch
The slow decay of the will, the inch by inch
Retreat of the nerves, the death by shame.

8. “The Defender of Differences” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books

A lively review of recent books about or featuring Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology. It begins, “Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen,” and then the reader discovers, delightfully, that the father of cultural anthropology was more or less ritually scarified all over his face. Because apparently the point of duels was to just slice the other person’s face up. Oh, also he was dueling proto-nazis! (Thought I’d try to end on a positive note this week.)

Stay safe,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
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This Week in Books: An Everlasting Meal

The False tomb of the child of Akbar in the Tomb of Akbar the Great in Agra on an overcast day. Robert Ruidl/Getty

Dear Reader,

The book that’s been the most help to me during lockdown is a book I’ve never read; I didn’t need to read it for it to save my life. I just needed, just one time, from a review or maybe from simply reading the jacket copy, to absorb its premise and go “huh that makes sense” and then to lock that information away deep in my nether-brain where it would be reserved for the occasion when I would really, really, really need it.

I am, of course, talking about Tamar Adler’s (no doubt) incomparable An Everlasting Meal, a (if I’m not mistaken) wonderful book, the main thrust of which (as I have been led to believe) is that to properly run a kitchen, you have to be constantly planning how the leftover ingredients of one meal will seamlessly blend into the next. This (surely) is a way of thinking and strategizing your grocery shopping which Tamar Adler wrote an entire book about. And I used to be such a bad cook — a non-cook, if you will — that when I first learned oh so many years ago about this concept from the book’s jacket copy or (as I’m now recalling) from my friend Hannah, who described the contents of the book to me (yes, that’s it, she once described the book to me) on the phone (honestly I barely have interacted with this book) or perhaps as we rode together on the train, I was so struck by the powerful logic of it that I locked it away tight in my hind-brain, my deep and permanent lizard-brain. In fact, so stunned do I remember being by this tremendous insight of Tamar Adler’s which (I have reason to suspect) she laid out in detail in the book An Everlasting Meal, that I have got to believe it had an impact on my grocery shopping and meal-planning right away; but the effects weren’t all that pronounced for a very long time, since back then I (truly) did not know how to cook anything. I did not know how to cook anything until last year and therefore until last year I never had an everlasting meal; I never had much more than an everlasting sandwich.

Last year is when I started getting really into recipes. But, reader, I was still a mere “shopping for one recipe at a time” person, a type of person which I have, these past few weeks, come to regard as a very weak and inferior type of person when compared to this accomplished and frankly powerful “shopping for three weeks of meals at a time” person that I have become.

To be totally clear, I placed a Fresh Direct order 3 weeks ago and we have not left the house since. I am a god.

Not a day of lockdown has gone by on which I have not thought of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, a book I have not read. Not a day has gone by on which An Everlasting Meal has not made me mighty.

I still have plans to make so many — so many different — curries that it would make your head explode. If I told you how many I’m afraid the information would hurt you.

I have never read Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, but, if I never get the virus, friends, I am attributing my survival entirely to the fact that I once merely heard about Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (a book so powerful that I am beginning to think that no one ever actually could read it without suffering some sort of permanent brain injury, or descending into madness, or raising up a creature from the Dark Pool Below the Tower in My Dreams and unleashing it on an unready world) and that, upon merely hearing of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, I inscribed in my deepest and darkest most everlasting thoughts a message that will never leave me, that I cannot — that I will not! I refuse to! — forget: “Thus darkly and alone is the Way to everl


[Editors’ note: This draft of Dana’s weekly books newsletter, which we received in an email from a strange address that included several photographs in the attachments, each of which is labeled “the False tomb of the child of Akbar at the Tomb of Akbar the Great in Agra on an overcast day,” ends abruptly mid-sentence. We will update this post when we finally hear from Dana what the message of An Everlasting Meal is.]


1. “In ‘Afropessimism,’ a Black Intellectual Mixes Memoir and Theory” by John Williams, The New York Times

In an interview, Frank B. Wilderson III talks about his memoir-theory hybrid Afropessimism, which, true to its title, makes the pessimistic case that black suffering is “essential” and even “necessary” to the psychic life of society. It’s hard to read the coronavirus death statistics this week and not see his point.

2. “Beth Alvarado: Grieving in Dreams” by Kimi Eisele, Guernica

Two novelists discuss what it’s like looking back at the books about grief, mass death, and apocalypse they wrote before the coronavirus. “We had no idea then that the virus was there, waiting, and about to be so swiftly spread. Or maybe we did know, could sense, our own precarity. What could possibly sustain a world so stacked toward some and against others?”

3. “No One Disagrees With Rebecca Solnit” by Jennifer Wilson, The New Republic

Jennifer Wilson takes a turn touching the third rail of book criticism by pointing out that a widely lauded feminist author of many books is maybe a bit too easy to agree with.

4. “The Brilliant Plodder” by David Quammen, The New York Review of Books

Many years ago, I intensely read David Quammen’s extraordinarily gripping book about how pandemic viruses emerge. I liked his writing so much that I picked up his book about Darwin and read that, too. Ever since corona showed up, Quammen’s name has been popping up in my feeds a lot as various publications have asked him to weigh in, but I never click on those articles; in fact I feel alarmingly triggered by them, because that book was so terrifying that, honestly guys, the fact that David Quammen is weighing in means we are in terrible trouble. So, uh, here’s an article he wrote about Darwin instead. I read it; it’s delightful. Let’s all read this one and not the others; let’s not become paralyzed by fear when David Quammen says the Big One has come, as he foretold it would.

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5. “For the Union Dead” by Daniel Mason, The Atlantic

A short story from Daniel Mason’s forthcoming collection A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, in which the narrator discovers a startling aspect of his recently deceased uncle’s favorite hobby.

6. “Broken Pieces” by Cody Delistraty, Poetry

This is a really excellent profile of the poet Cynthia Cruz. “Throughout our afternoon together, Cruz earnestly asks me to help her interpret her poetry, as though she has located the lock to the deepest recesses of her mind but not the key.”

7. “Rereading Sanmao, the Taiwanese Wayfarer Who Sold Fifteen Million Books” by Han Zhang, The New Yorker

One of the world’s more popular writers has recently been translated into English for the first time. Han Zhang reflects on her girlhood fascination with Sanmao.

8. “from Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight,” Bomb

An excerpt from Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex. After a lab accident, a disgraced toxicologist makes a choice. “I guess you could say that I like revenge and they like common decency. I guess you could say I don’t approve of myself enough to protect myself.”

9. “Season of the Witch” by Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Bookforum

A review of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, a novel about a real-life murder which she wrote in lieu of an investigative report because “in Mexico… they kill journalists, but they don’t kill writers, and anyways, fiction protects you.”


* * *

What Does It Mean To Be Moved?

A Dutch Ship, a Yacht and Smaller Vessels in a Breeze, c. 1660, Willem van de Velde the Younger. Found in the collection of the National Gallery, London. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Jennifer Wilson | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,734 words)


“Why does a ripe apple fall?” Tolstoy asks in War and Peace. “Because the wind shakes it…or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?” Technically, the wind is the movement of air across space; but in our poetry, myths, and moving pictures, wind is something else entirely. For Tolstoy, it was the forces of nature tilting downward to meet man’s desire. For others, the wind is something that gives us permission, permission to move off course, to be blown away, to be held back longer from our destination, to act wild. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Aeolus, the divine keeper of the winds, hands Odysseus a bag containing all the winds of the earth. Aeolus conjures the west wind to send the men home. But just when they have Ithaca in their sights, Odysseus’s men, convinced the bag has gold inside, open it up. The winds escape and transform into a storm that sends their ship all the way back to Aeolus. However, this time he refuses to help them, certain Odysseus has been cursed by the gods.

We have rendered wind a metaphor for anger, passion, unreason; we use it as an excuse when we want permission to lose our minds. It is that extra push to be the person you really want to be, or to explain who we already in fact are. As Wallace Stevens put it “The wind shifts like this/ Like a human without illusions/Who still feels irrational things within her.” In Joan Didion’s Los Angeles Notebook, she writes about the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that leave coastal California in disarray, sometimes on fire. But for Didion, the Santa Anas are something else too; their arrival allows for a certain relinquishing of control. “We know it [is coming] because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.” I remember reading these lines for the first time and wishing for a wind like that, something that I could surrender to. Read more…

Memories Dressed Up With Wishes

Illustration by Homestead

Grace Linden | Longreads | July 2019 | 8 minutes (2,211 words)

The year is 2017 in Siri Hustvedt’s seventh and most recent novel Memories of the Future, and the premise is seemingly straightforward. The novel opens with its protagonist, S.H., a 61-year-old successful author, thinking back on the year when she moved to New York City over three decades earlier. It begins, like so many other stories and dreams, with the memory of a young woman moving to New York holding fast to the hope that this was the start of her life:

Years ago I left the wide, flat fields of rural Minnesota for the island of Manhattan to find the hero of my first novel. When I arrived in August of 1978, he was not a character so much as a rhythmic possibility, an embryonic creature of my imagination, which I felt as a series of metrical beats that quickened and slowed with my steps as I navigated the streets of the city. I think I was hoping to discover myself in him, to prove that he and I were worthy of whatever story came our way.

The beginning, like many beginnings and like life itself, is extraordinarily ordinary. S.H. recounts how, that summer of 1978, she found a small apartment on 109th Street in the Upper West Side. She remembers outfitting her new home with two place settings in the hopes of conjuring a lover. She smoked and drank a lot of coffee at the Hungarian Bakery and tried to be the type of person who interesting things happened to or, at the very least, who got to witness interesting things happening first-hand. She was lonely but didn’t want to leave, and instead was determined to lose herself in the rhythms of the city she had long loved even before ever really knowing it. Read more…

A Minor Figure

Ada Overton Walker, 1912. (Library of Congress)

Saidiya Hartman | An excerpt adapted from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval | W. W. Norton & Co. | 25 minutes (6,922 words)

The small naked figure reclines on the arabesque sofa. Looking at the photograph, it is easy to mistake her for some other Negress, lump her with all the delinquent girls working Lombard Street and Middle Alley, lose sight of her among the surplus colored women in the city, condemn and pity the child whore. Everyone has a different story to share. Fragments of her life are woven with the stories of girls resembling her and girls nothing like her, stories held together by longing, betrayal, lies, and disappointment. The newspaper article confuses her with another girl, gets her name wrong. Photographs of the tenement where she lives regularly appear in the police briefs and the charity reports, but you can barely see her, peering out of the third-floor window. The caption makes no mention of her, noting only the moral hazard of the one-room kitchenette, the foul condition of the toilets, and the noise of the airshaft. The photograph taken of her in the attic studio is the one that is most familiar; it is how the world still remembers her. Had her name been scribbled on the back of the albumen print, there would be at least one fact I could convey with a measure of certainty, one detail that I would not have to guess, one less obstacle in retracing the girl’s path through the streets of the city. Had the photographer or one of the young men assisting him in the studio recorded her name, I might have been able to find her in the 1900 census, or discover if she ever resided at the Shelter for Colored Orphans, or danced on the stage of the Lafayette Theatre, or if she ended up at the Magdalene House when there was nowhere else to go.

Her friends refused to tell the authorities anything; but even they didn’t know how she arrived at the house on the outskirts of the Seventh Ward, or what happened in the studio that afternoon. The Irish housekeeper thought she was the black cook, Old Margaret’s, niece, and, neglecting her work as they were wont to do had wandered from the kitchen to the studio. Old Margaret, no kin to the girl, believed that Mr. Eakins had lured her to the attic with the promise of a few coins, but never said what she feared. The social worker later assigned to the girl’s case never saw the photograph. She blamed the girl’s mother and the slum for all the terrible things that happened and filled in the blanks on the personal history form, never listening for any other answer. Age of first sexual offense was the only question without certain reply.

From these bits and pieces, it has been difficult to know where to begin or even what to call her. The fiction of a proper name would evade the dilemma, not resolve it. It would only postpone the question: Who is she? I suppose I could call her Mattie or Kit or Ethel or Mabel. Any of these names would do and would be the kind of name common to a young colored woman at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are other names reserved for the dark: Sugar Plum, Peaches, Pretty Baby, and Little Bit — names imposed on girls like her that hint at the pleasures afforded by intimate acts performed in rented rooms and dimly lit hallways. And there are the aliases too, the identities slipped on and discarded — a Mrs. quickly affixed to a lover’s name, or one borrowed from a favorite actress to invent a new life, or the protective cover offered by the surname of a maternal grandmother’s dead cousin — all to elude the law, keep your name out of the police register, hold the past at a safe distance, forget what grown men did to girls behind closed doors. The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse, and made an errant path through the city. Read more…

Those Limits Were Not Hindrances: An Interview with Megan Pugh

Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During his 40-year career, Leon Redbone was a musician for whom the past was never past and the persona was as important as the music. But what about his real name? And where did he come from? “That’s a memoir question,” he told one journalist. “I don’t answer memoir questions.” For the Oxford American, poet and prose writer Megan Pugh spoke to Redbone’s family and acquaintances to paint the most robust, reliable portrait we have of this compelling musical mystery. The story, “Vessel of Antiquity,” came out in the Spring 2019 issue with tragically fitting timing. Redbone died on May 30th, just a few months later.

While “Vessel” solves certain mysteries, it deepens the more important ones. While tryiing to understand what drew this expatriated Armenian to America’s musical past, the author captures the essence of the person — hilarious, kind, driven to live as his authentic self — and captures the sound and meaning of the music as only the best writers can. With incredible narrative skill and poetic sensibility, the story seeks the truth without taking the fun out of Redbone’s painstakingly constructed identity; more proof that poets often make the best prose writers. Pugh spoke with me about writing and Redbone via email.


How did this story start for you? Were you a fan of Redbone’s?

I wanted to understand why Leon Redbone’s live performances were so astonishingly good, and so moving. I saw him play in San Francisco in 2008 and 2011, and after both shows, I emailed a dear friend — a historian living across the country — about how urgently we needed to discuss the wondrous things Leon Redbone was doing with time: not just playing the old tunes, but also talking about long-dead musicians as though they were alive, whistling along to recordings, noting the presence of an onstage trashcan that seemed vaguely like the dustbin of history. (In hindsight, “discuss” probably meant “listen to me be very excited while I repeat all the details I can remember.”)

Years passed, Redbone retired, and no one had published the kind of serious, career retrospective he deserved, something that did justice to his art. When I reached out to Redbone’s publicist, Jim Della Croce, in 2017, he encouraged me to write one. Over a series of phone calls, Jim also told me wonderful stories about spending time with Leon. The piece began in fandom, with plenty of solitary research, but it moved along because so many people who knew Leon Redbone — friends, band members, family — were so generous with their memories.

Some of the best music stories start with that sort of passionate fandom, the urge to understand and honor someone wondrous. But part of Redbone’s legacy is the mystery he creates about himself. Did the people you talked to put limits on what they’d say about his origins?

Yes. Redbone was a very private person, and his friends were loyal— as friends should be. When I asked the blues singer Paul Geremia if Redbone had ever talked about his family’s history, for example, Geremia simply replied: “That’s personal.” Other folks, even if they’d known Redbone for years, understood that they weren’t supposed to ask about his life before he’d become Leon Redbone — or that if they got close to asking, he’d avoid the topic. Dan Levinson, who played clarinet with Redbone, remembered asking “something like ‘Are you fluent in any other languages,'” to which Redbone would reply, “‘Yes, all languages.'” Those limits never struck me as hindrances — they were information. And I was interested in other information, too: how Redbone worked, what it was like to be out on the road with him or in the recording studio, whether my developing sense of him seemed right to people who’d know.

I should be clear that by the time I became a Redbone fan, it was pretty easy to find his birthplace and given name (Nicosia, Cyprus, and Dickran Gobalian): George Gamester had written about them in the Toronto Star back in 1986. Those details led me to others. But as I learned more about the Gobalian family’s history — Redbone’s father survived the Armenian genocide, and “Leon” was the name of the last king of Armenia — I worried about what to include. Should I follow the example of the pianist Tom Roberts, who told me that when people tried to talk with him about Redbone’s origins, he’d just plug his ears and sing? So many people had been careful not to violate Redbone’s privacy, and I wanted to be careful too. I sought advice from friends — one a professional philosopher, another a longtime journalist. They told me that this information would not harm anyone; that I was going to share it in a respectful context; that it might generate interest, knowledge, and understanding; that I’d talked about this history with Redbone’s wife, Beryl Handler, and younger daughter, Ashley; that this is how profiles work. But I ran the details by the family one more time anyway, just to be sure.

It’s interesting that you sought a philosopher’s counsel, because a project like this presents the clear ethical issues you describe, but it also begs other questions about how sharing this personal information influences listeners. If his identity and performance were, as your story says, as important as his music, does knowing Redbone’s other identity change the experience of his music?

That’s a tough one, and I wouldn’t want to presume to answer it for other people. I’m still moved by Redbone’s work for the same reasons I’ve always loved him — his sly panache, that voice, the way he breaks the rules of time — but research and writing have deepened my experience and helped me understand it. Yet there’s so much about Redbone I don’t know, including how appropriate it is to think of his life before he was publicly Leon Redbone as an “other identity.” I like that uncertainty. I like that he kept audiences focused on his art.

His death, though, and the poor health that preceded it, have changed what I hear. On some level, his records were already raising the dead, but I wish this didn’t now include him. I never met him, but it felt oddly intimate to have so many long and sometimes heartfelt conversations with people who cared about him enough to try to help some woman they’d never met write an article. I suppose that process amplified the feelings of simultaneous closeness and distance that I love in his work — the past brought back, the past you’ll never quite get. But also, I’ve just been thinking about these people — who know him not just as an artist, but as a person whom they’ve lost — a lot.

You also mention how no one had published a serious career retrospective before. Was the limited number of secondary sources a challenge?

I don’t want to imply that there was a lack of writing about Redbone. There’s quite a bit, and I found it incredibly helpful to read many, many profiles, record reviews, and interviews from the 1970s on — especially since, by the time I began working on the piece, Redbone’s health was too poor to allow for an interview. What I read didn’t do what I wanted to do, but that was okay — it meant that there was room. And though no one else was writing about Redbone’s career at length when he retired, the folks at Riddle Films premiered a wonderful documentary short, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, last year, with stories about Redbone’s emergence on the Toronto scene and some beautiful, more recent footage.

Some of my favorite prose writers are poets, including Hanif Abdurraqib and Denis Johnson, and after seeing the way you articulate ideas and use language — I had to read this with a pencil to mark the margins of the pages — I wasn’t surprised to learn that you are, too. How do your poetry and prose inform each other? What challenges does writing in two forms present? 

That’s nice to hear, thank you! Both genres, for me, involve a kind of obsessive attention. Both come from a desire to find a language for something at times when that language might not be immediately evident. Whatever I’m writing, I tend to enjoy thinking about the ways that — to borrow from Kenneth Koch — one train may hide another, or one experience may haunt another. I tend to feel very attached to the sentence, as a form, and the kind of wonderful fragmentary play at which many poets I admire excel never comes easily to me. But I’m mostly okay with that. I like sentences.

There Is No Other Way To Say This

Tony Comiti / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Melissa Batchelor Warnke | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,668 words)


“What you have heard is true. I was in his house.” So begins one of the most famous poems of the late twentieth century, Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” which was part of an early body of work that seemed to contemporary admirers as if it had “reinvent[ed] the political lyric at a moment of profound depoliticization.” The poem describes a meeting Forché had with a Salvadoran military leader in his home in 1978, a year before the coup that sparked that country’s extraordinarily brutal civil war, which lasted for more than twelve years. The poem’s power lies in the quick juxtaposition of quotidian details — the colonel’s daughter filing her nails, a cop show playing on TV, mangoes being served — with his sudden sadistic flourish:

…………..The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air………..

“Something for your poetry, no?” the colonel says next. The implication is clear; the young human rights advocate’s writing is pointless, the colonel’s position will forever afford him impunity. Read more…

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100: A Reading List

Lawrence Ferlinghetti on Monday, Jan. 15, 1988, in front of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (AP Photo)

March 24, 2019, is American poet, activist, and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday. This week’s release of Little Boy, his new autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel, is also a reason for Ferlinghetti fans to celebrate. In San Francisco, where his bookstore and literary landmark, City Lights, still stands strong, the city prepares for “Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100” events around town.

To mark this milestone, here’s a reading list of interviews and features from the past several years about Ferlinghetti’s poetry and painting; his relationships with Allen Ginsberg and others of the Beat Generation (a label, writes Barry Miles at Poetry Foundation, that Ferlinghetti rejected); his observations on a dramatically changing San Francisco; and a bonus piece — a meditation on poetry, which Ferlinghetti delivered upon receiving the Frost Medal in 2003.

1. “What Is Poetry?: A Non-Lecture,” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 2003, Poetry Society of America)

As the 2003 Frost Medalist, Ferlinghetti delivered an ars poetica, a draft of which is published at Poetry Society of America.

Poems are emails from the unknown, beyond cyberspace.

Poetry as a first language preceded writing and still sounds in us, a mute music, an inchoate music.

Poems like moths press against the window trying to reach the light.

Poetry is white writing on black, black writing on white.

It is a Madeleine dipped in Proust’s tea.

It is a player-piano in an abandoned seaside casino, still playing.

All the world is one poem, all poetry one world, give or take a bomb or two.

Poetry is what we would cry out upon coming to ourselves in a dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life.

2. “Driving the Beat Road,” (Jeff Weiss, June 2017, The Washington Post)

Weiss drove up the California coast in search of surviving members of the Beat Generation and caught up with Ferlinghetti, along with poets Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and novelist Herbert Gold, in this 12,000-word, multi-profile odyssey.

“It’s all going to be underwater in 100 years or maybe even 50,” he says when asked what he sees for San Francisco, the beloved adopted city that partially betrayed him. “The Embarcadero is one of the greatest esplanades in the world. On the weekends, thousands of people strut up and down like it’s the Ramblas in Barcelona. But it’ll all be underwater.”

That repetition of “underwater” lingers for a second, as though it’s an anchor that he can’t stop from sinking. At that moment, it’s not hard to imagine this cafe as an Atlantean ruin, filled with drowned corpses tethered to their laptops and iPhones until the soggy finish. He half-smiles again and shrugs, unapologetic for what he sees, as though to say one last time, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

In another read at Poetry Foundation from March 2013, David Meltzer chats with the poet on his book Time of Useful Consciousness.

3. “The Beat Goes On,” (Barry Miles, March 2019, Poetry Foundation)

Miles, a Beat scholar and friend of Ferlinghetti, pays tribute to the centenarian, exploring his important work as a poet and publisher and his close connections with the other Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg.

The night we arrived, both Ferlinghetti and Shig slept outside on the terrace. It was idyllic. Before we returned to the city we visited the Esalen Institute. At the gates from the highway, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti debated which of them was a member. In the end, they decided they were both honorary members, and it’s true, they were welcomed as honored guests. We were fed, given wine, and invited to take part in the naked group photograph, although we had to leave before that occurred. It was interesting to see the reaction to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti there. Both were respected as part of the California alternative body politic as expressed by Shelley’s line “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

4. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the old San Francisco, his new novel, and his first 100 years,” (Ira Silverberg, December 2018, Document Journal)

Ferlinghetti talks with Ira Silverberg, then an editor at Simon & Schuster, on visionary poets, Little Boy, and the unattractive transformation of San Francisco.

I think the San Francisco that we’ve known all these years is disappearing very fast. In another 20 years, we won’t even recognize this city. In the time of James Joyce—say, in 1902—Dublin was of such a size that you could walk down the main street, like Sackville Street, and meet everybody important in the literary world. I’m sure Dublin isn’t like that anymore, either, and in San Francisco in 1902, probably you could meet everybody important in the literary world. That’s all gone now.

5. “In Conversation: Lawrence Ferlinghetti with John Held, Jr.,” (John Held, Jr., December 2014, SFAQ)

In this conversation, which took place over four sessions in 2014, Ferlinghetti focuses the discussion on his painting, the reception of his art in Italy, art publishing, and the Bay Area art scene.

Yeah, but let’s stick to the painting subject. In the 1950s, I got Hassel Smith’s painting studio at 9 Mission Street. It’s the Audiffred Building. It’s at the foot of Market Street and the Embarcadero, and there was no electricity over the ground floor. On the ground floor was the Bank of America. On the second floor we shared the floor with the Alcoholics Anonymous club. On the same floor was Frank Lobdell—his studio was there and in the back of the floor was Marty Snipper, who was an art teacher. There was no heat over the first floor and no electricity. I had a small pot bellied stove for heat. So, it was just like a Paris studio. It was really studio size, like in Paris. In North Beach today, there are no studios. People have one room, and they call it a studio.

6. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Enduring San Francisco,” (Dwight Garner, March 2019, The New York Times)

Garners visits the City by the Bay to write about — and remember — Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco; his itinerary includes North Beach Beat-era hangouts like Caffe Trieste and Vesuvio Cafe, and a tour of bookstores around the city, from City Lights, which Ferlinghetti opened in 1953, to Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, both in the Mission.

At 99, Mr. Ferlinghetti is largely blind. He was not, I was told, quite up to receiving visitors. But we had two lively telephone conversations. In advance, I’d told both his publisher and his assistant that I planned to ask about his favorite places in the “cool, grey city of love,” as the poet George Sterling called it.

Yet when I rang, Mr. Ferlinghetti barked at me. “This is just the kind of interview I don’t like to do,” he said. “These sort of questions just leave me blank.” He condemned “travel section stuff.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was writing this article for the Travel section.

Seasonal Associate

An Amazon fulfillment center in Italy. Getty Images News.

Heike Geissler | translate from German by Katy Derbyshire | an excerpt from the novel Seasonal Associate | Semiotext(e) | December 2018 | 12 minutes (3,203 words)

You have a stride today that leads you almost above everyone’s heads at speed, but you walk in their midst, and it’s not down to you that a logjam forms down at the time clock; you’ve got your ID at the ready and you hold it up to the sensor as you pass. It’s down to others who are newer than you, who have to examine what the screen says first, who wait for the display to formulate clearly that they’ve been logged in. You make small noises to express your annoyance, jostle a little, but you’re not as snappy as those who pass by the waiting line and really hold their IDs up to the sensor as they walk, so fast that the new employee currently examining the screen and slowly raising his ID to the sensor doesn’t even notice.

And now: things, oh boy, things. It’s because of all the things that are here, which someone or another wants to buy, that you’re here in the first place. Strange products in your hands, for example this baseball cap that already looks so lived-in it could hardly get much more worn. Used- or distressed-look fashion, you get the point, but the cap is nothing but a ragged piece of cloth, more like something for adherents to a radicalized acceleration of the commodity cycle, people who only buy what has to be thrown away because it fails to meet its requirements as a usable product, serves only to move money and material. The cap has an Iron Maiden logo on it and has slipped out of its bag. You almost sense the greasy feel of sweat mixed with dust. You’re tempted to try it on for a moment, perhaps because it looks like something you found on the street for which you might have some use. A colleague at the next desk calls over that a guy was fired two weeks ago for trying out a skateboard he was supposed to be receiving. You nod, stuff the cap back in the bag, and tape it shut. Read more…