Tag Archives: Books

A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…

Following John McPhee’s Path to ‘Oranges’

Some works of nonfiction grow dated quickly, others remain what poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news.” John McPhee’s slim book Oranges came out in 1967, and although the players in Florida’s citrus industry have changed, Oranges endures as a classic of unconventional journalism. For the Oxford American, Wyatt Williams travels to Florida in McPhee’s footsteps fifty years, revisiting places that McPhee visited, examining his mix of research, reporting, and essay writing. What Williams finds is a very different Florida, and a work that has endured the  changes to both the publishing industry, and citrus industry.

Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.

Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.

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Jeff Bezos: Hero or Villain?

Jeff Bezos

When the news of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods broke, some wondered whether Amazon owner Jeff Bezos was flying too close to the anti-trust sun, teetering on the verge of an unfair monopoly.

Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who specializes in such questions, tweeted:

Wu did not immediately respond to inquiries, but further Twitter-digging showed varied theories about the business deal:

It’s notable that the news broke alongside The New York Times’ report on Bezos’ lack of philanthropic giving. As ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis highlighted on Twitter, Bezos is the second-wealthiest person on the planet and has given away a mere .1 percent of his wealth.

After the Times questioned Bezos, he turned to Twitter with a “request for ideas.” As the Times noted, Bezos is a hero of sorts for some in journalism since he purchased The Washington Post in 2013. The Post is, of course, a for-profit business, so the purchase hardly makes him a philanthropist. But in an industry where the editorial rank-and-file are being laid off in droves, up against ownerships that devalue deep work who are intent on repeating the same failed strategies in floundering attempts to turn a craft into a viable business, the fact that the Post has been on a hiring spree and Bezos has appeared to value good, hard-won journalism is a bright spot in a bleak landscape.

And, for what it’s worth, he threw $1 million at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press last month, an organization that seems increasingly vital as journalists face decades in prison for covering protests on U.S. soil.

Of course, the flipside of that is Amazon. Amazon has:

In The New Republic in 2014, Franklin Foer accused the company of “cannibalizing the economy,” insisting that it “must be stopped.”

Good deeds by Amazon include providing a space to a homeless shelter in Seattle — which could indicate this Whole Foods deal is a chance for Bezos to use his new properties for good in cities like New York and San Francisco, where homelessness is a chronic, persistent issue and housing costs have become prohibitive for many. And while the company is often criticized for lowering prices to a point that is deadly to their competitors, if Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods makes home delivery of healthful groceries affordable for low-income people — who tend to struggle more both with health issues and access to transportation — that would be a good thing.

For now, it’s unclear what Bezos will do with Whole Foods, though Amazon’s foray into brick-and-mortar bookstores may provide a clue.

 

A Sociology of the Smartphone

Adam Greenfield | Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life | Verso | June 2017 | 27 minutes (7,433 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from Radical Technologies, by Adam Greenfield. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

They are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking.

The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.

For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.

They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.

For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand. Read more…

Getting Out the Message To Save Himself

Don Waters | The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories | University of Nevada Press | May 2017 | 25 minutes (6954 words)

From altar boys to inmates, ranches to hotels, the characters in Don Waters’ new collection of short fiction struggle with faith and meaning as much as the landscape of the American Southwest. In this story, “Full of Days,” the protagonist’s antiabortion billboard and surrogate daughter force him to reexamine his controlling behavior and own deep loss, in a city known for sin. Our thanks to Waters and University of Nevada Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.

* * *

“So Job died, being old and full of days.”  —Book of Job 42:17

Marc Maldonado sensed the Kingdom of God within him on Sundays, driving sun-scorched trash-scattered freeways to his temple of worship, and he felt the emptiness of his own realm whenever he set the table for one, whenever he aligned his socks in the hollow dresser drawer. In this hot, high-voltage city, with its pulsing neon, with its armies of fingers slamming on video poker buttons, he felt the loving kindness, the light ache of breath in his nostrils, and he knew he was necessary.

On that day Marc drove the freeways, analyzing angles for the best possible exposure. The great desert opened to him as he cruised I-15 North-South, I-515 East-West, changing direction where the freeways intersected and formed a concrete cross. Read more…

At War With the Rat Army

Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer | The Farm in the Green Mountains | New York Review Books | May 2017 | 11 minutes (2,896 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir The Farm in the Green MountainsHaving fled Nazi Germany, the Zuckmayers ended up spending several years of their exile on a farm in Vermont, where they engaged in a war of extermination against an invading army of rats. A bestseller in Germany when it was published in 1949, it was reprinted this month by New York Review Books. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I felt suddenly that I was not alone.

It was the third summer.

That was when I saw them for the first time.

It was evening, and I had gone into the shed to mix the feed before dark.

In this shed the buckets in which the feed was kept stood across from the entrance in a long row.

There was laying meal, feed grain, and the mash for fattening the chickens. There were buckets for duck and goose feed, which we mixed ourselves.

Zuck had carried the heavy sacks into the shed for me and left them in front of the empty buckets.

I began to untie the strings of the sacks and to use a measuring scoop to fill the buckets with the prescribed amounts of oats, bran, fattening mash, and corn meal.

The quiet of evening filled the shed. Ducks and geese peeped in their sleep. Lisettchen sat above me on her beam. I called her name, but this evening she only blinked at me and wouldn’t fly down.

The feed rattled into the buckets and smelled like fields at harvest time.

Suddenly I stopped in the middle of my work, because a violent, overwhelming terror seized me, like the fear of the unaccustomed and unknown. I felt suddenly that I was not alone with my animals, that I was being watched closely from some corner.

I stood motionless and waited.

Now I heard a noise—a disembodied, ghostly tripping across the wooden floor. Then I saw something standing on the stairs. It was a large, gray-brown rat. Read more…

Norma McCorvey Versus Jane Roe

Norma McCorvey | I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice Harper Collins, 1994 | 19 minutes | 4,650 words

 

When journalist Andy Meisner met Norma McCorvey to work on her memoir, “she was cashing checks at the 7-Eleven” and living with her partner Connie Gonzalez in Dallas. The New York Times visited McCorvey before the book’s publication in the summer of 1994, and McCorvey showed the reporter the steel door they’d had installed after their house was shot at in 1989 — as well as her dream keeper, a closet full of prized coats, and a collection of clowns she had purchased for Gonzalez. “Once people read I Am Roe, I think they’ll understand where I’m coming from,” she told the Times. “I’m a simple woman with a ninth-grade education who wants women not to be harassed or condemned.”

A year later, McCorvey publicly converted to born-again Christianity — and later, to Roman Catholicism — and she would spent the next twenty years of her life campaigning furiously against the pro-choice movement and the abortion she never received. “Roe has been her life, but it’s no longer much of a living,” wrote Vanity Fair in 2013.

McCorvey died in Dallas of heart failure at the age of 69 on February 18, 2017. In her review of I Am Roe, Susan Cheever writes: Norma McCorvey is an angry shadow from the dark side of the American dream…That Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey are the same person is just another example of the randomness and absurdity of a politics marked by an unbridgeable gulf between myth and reality.”  I Am Roe is currently out of print, and this excerpt is courtesy of Harper Collins.

Read more…

On Becoming a Woman Who Knows Too Much

Hawa Allan | “Becoming Meta,” from Double Bind: Women on Ambition | April 2017 | 18 minutes (4,661 words)

For many women, the idea of ambition is complicated. Too often when we’re are described as ambitious, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a compliment or a criticism. Often, it’s an all-out accusation. For the essay collection Double Bind, editor Robin Romm tasked 24 women writers with considering their own relationships to ambition. Hawa Allan‘s essay “Becoming Meta” is a meditation on the mantra of I’ll show you that drove her to achieve—first as the only black student in her elementary school’s gifted and talented program, then as a law student, and finally as a law firm associate, hungry for the validation of the “rainmaker” partners whose ranks held no one that looked like her.

***

A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced. —Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be?

I have been to a few Madonna concerts in my day, so I may or may not have been straining to get a view around the pillar planted in front of my discount seat when I beheld the superstar kick up into a forearm stand in the middle of the stage. For non-initiates, a “forearm stand” is a yoga pose wherein you balance your entire body on your forearms—lain parallel to one another on the ground, and perpendicular to your upper arms, torso, and legs, all of which are inverted skyward. Imagine turning your body into an “L.” And then imagine Madonna doing the same, except spotlighted before thousands of gaping fans in a large arena.

I hadn’t done any yoga at that point, so the irony of Madonna flaunting her ability in a discipline meant to induce inner awareness was totally lost on me. I just thought it was cool. Precisely, I interpreted Madonna’s forearm stand as a demonstration of power—power that was quiet yet fierce. An expression of power that I immediately decided I wanted to embody. So, not too long thereafter, I went ahead and enrolled in a series of free, introductory lessons at yoga studios across Manhattan and Brooklyn. My modus operandi: take advantage of the introductory classes and skip to another studio (once I no longer had a discounted pass). I was doing this, I told myself at the time, to test out different teachers—to find “the right fit.” In hindsight, I can see that this was just an excuse for being itinerant and cheap.

Read more…

Considering the Wall

Max Adams | In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages | Pegasus | October 2016 | 15 minutes (4,012 words) 

Below is an excerpt from In the Land of the Giants, by Max Adams. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall.

Just after dawn on a late November day the North Pennines air is rigid with cold. A thick hoar of frost blankets pasture and hedge, reflecting white-blue light back at an empty sky. The last russet leaves clinging to a copse of beech trees set snug in the fold of a river valley filter lazy, hanging drifts of smoke from a wood fire. The sunlight is a dreamy veil of cream silk.

I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall. I have not followed the neat, fenced, waymarked route from the little village of Gilsland which straddles the high border between Northumberland and Cumbria, but struck directly across country and, with the sun in my eyes, I do not see Hadrian’s big idea until I am almost in its shadow. Sure, it stops you in your tracks. It is too big to climb over (that being the point), so I walk beside it for a couple of hundred yards. The imperfect regularity of the sandstone blocks is mesmerizing, passing before one’s eyes like the holes on a reel of celluloid. This film is an epic: eighty Roman miles, a strip cartoon story that tells of military might, squaddy boredom, quirky native gods, barbarian onslaught, farmers, archaeologists, ardent modern walkers and oblivious livestock. I am somewhere between Mile 49 and Mile 50, counting west from Wallsend near the mouth of the River Tyne. The gap in the Wall, when I find it, is made by the entrance to Birdoswald fort. Birdoswald: where the Dark ages begin.

There is no one here but me on this shining day. The farm that has stood here in various guises for around fifteen hundred years is now a heritage center. On a winter weekday I have Birdoswald to myself. Just me and the shimmering light and the odd chough cawing away in a skeletal tree. In places the stone walls of this once indomitable military outpost still stand five or six feet high. Visible, in its heyday, from all horizons, the Roman fort layout was built on a well-tested model: from above, it is the shape of a playing card, with the short sides facing north and south. Originally designed so that three of the six gates (two in each long side, one at either end in the center) protruded beyond the line of the Wall, the fort was not so much part of a defensive frontier, more a launching pad for expeditions, patrols and forays in the lands to the north. Rome did not hide behind its walls; the legions did not cower. Any soldier from any part of the Empire would have known which way to turn on entering the gate; where the barrack rooms would be; where to find the latrines and bread ovens; how to avoid the scrutiny of the garrison commander after a late-night binge or an overnight stay in the house of the one of the locals. Uniformity was part of the Roman project. Read more…

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Cheerful Novel of Climate Change

Kim Stanley Robinson is the rare sci-fi novelist that deals in utopias, rather than dystopias—government scientists are often the heroes of his novels, and their quick thinking and bureaucratic efficiency often save the day.

His latest book, New York 2140, takes place not at the moment of catastrophe—in the year 2100, sea levels rise and flood New York so that a majority of the city is 50 feet underwater—but 40 years later, as most city-dwellers do what they’ve always done, and simply gotten along with it. At New York Magazine, Robinson talks with Jake Swearingen about why he made a novel about climate change with a positive outlook.

I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.

I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, or perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.

But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

Read the interview