Tag Archives: Books

Trilby, the Novel That Gave Us ‘Svengali’

A scene from the 1931 film Svengali. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Emma Garman | Longreads | February 2017 | 6 minutes (1,788 words)

In the fall of 1894, a New Jersey reader wrote to George du Maurier, the Franco-British author and satirical cartoonist whose Harper’s Monthly serial, Trilby, had just come out as a novel. The concerned correspondent asked that his mind be put to rest regarding the decorousness of relations between Trilby, the young heroine, and musical genius Svengali, under whose hypnotic spell she becomes an overnight opera sensation. Du Maurier replied politely but briefly: “I beg to say that you are right about Trilby. When free from mesmeric influence, she lived with him as his daughter, and was quite innocent of any other relation.” His assurance was published in The Argonaut, a San Francisco weekly, thus alleviating any similar fears for the girl’s reputation among that paper’s readership. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, a woman had a disagreement with her husband over Trilby’s morals, culminating in her smashing an earthenware jar over his head. Luckily for the woman, the injured party declined to give evidence in court. Perhaps he appreciated that when it came to Trilby, emotions ran high.

Irish-Scotch-French model and laundress Trilby O’Ferrall was partly based on real women, including a 17-year-old girl, nicknamed Carry, whom du Maurier and his friend Felix Moscheles knew as art students—and amateur mesmerists—in Belgium in the late 1850s. With her “rich crop of brown hair, very blue inquisitive eyes, and a figure of peculiar elasticity,” Carry modeled nude for them and allowed herself to be hypnotized. Her soul, Moscheles later claimed, “was steeped in the very essence of Trilbyism.” Du Maurier’s granddaughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, concurred: “Carry . . . had the same camaraderie, the same boyish attraction, the same funny shy reserve.” Another inspiration was Anna Bishop, an opera star reputed to be in sinister thrall to her older lover-manager, the French harpist and composer Robert Nicolas-Charles Bochsa. In 1839, Bishop caused a scandal by leaving her husband for Boscha, and to his musical accompaniment, the legend went, she sang as she never had before. Read more…

Making Sense of Our Compulsions

Photo credit: Kayana Szymczak

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (3,932 words)

 

Checking our smartphones every few minutes. Making sure every spice jar is in the exact right place in the rack. Shopping. Stealing. Working nonstop. Hoarding. “Compulsions come from a need so desperate, burning, and tortured it makes us feel like a vessel filling with steam, saturating us with a hot urgency that demands relief,” Sharon Begley writes in her new book, Can’t Just Stop. “Suffused and overwhelmed by anxiety, we grab hold of any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control.”

In a time of extreme anxiety for many of us, Begley’s book feels particularly relevant. In chapters that run the gamut from obsessive-compulsive disorder to compulsive do-gooding, Begley—a senior science writer for STAT, whose previous books include The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brainexplores how behaviors that range widely in both character and extremity can come from a common root. “Venturing inside the heads and the worlds of people who behave compulsively not only shatters the smug superiority many of us feel when confronted with others’ extreme behavior,” she writes. “It also reveals elements of our shared humanity.” Begley and I spoke by phone about what anxiety is, exactly; her own compulsions; and whether it’s possible to have no compulsions (not likely).

What is the definition of “compulsion,” as compared to addiction and impulsive behaviors?

This was the first thing that I had to grapple with. The first thing I did was go around to psychologists and psychiatrists and start asking, “What is the difference between these three things?” To make a long story as short as possible, they really didn’t have a clue, or at least they were not very good at explaining it—to the extent that the same disorder would be described in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, using “compulsive” one time and “impulsive” the next.

So where I finally came down, after finding people who had really thought about this, is as follows. Impulsive behaviors are ones that go from some unconscious part of your brain right to a motor action. There is very little emotion except for that feeling of impulsivity. There’s certainly little to no thought involved.

Behavioral addictions—and this is where I thought it started to get interesting—are born in something pleasurable. If you’re addicted to gambling, it probably is because, at least when you started, it was a whole lot of fun. You loved it. You got a hedonic hit, a pulse of enjoyment. And certainly as things go along, a behavioral addiction like gambling can cause you all sorts of distress and destroy your life. But at least at the beginning, it brings you extreme pleasure.

Compulsions are very different. They come from this desperate, desperate need to alleviate anxiety. They’re an outlet valve. The anxiety makes you want to jump out of your skin, or it makes you feel like your skin is crawling with fire ants. And what compulsions do is bring relief only after you have executed the compulsion, whether it is to exercise, or to check your texts, or to shop, or to keep something if you’re a hoarder. And crucially, compulsions, although they bring relief, bring almost no enjoyment except in the sense that if you stop banging your head against a wall, then it feels good to stop. Read more…

But What’s IT All About?: How We Forgot the Murderous Clown

Pennywise's House: image by Freaktography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.

I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”

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‘A Place of Refuge and Protection’: Roxane Gay Calls on Booksellers to ‘Rise to the Occasion’

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Throughout my life books have been my best friends. In bookstores and with books I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I needed safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary—a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.

I have been thinking a lot about sanctuary lately during this rising age of American disgrace. I have been thinking about how I have long believed that to write as a woman and to write as a black woman is political and that words are my sanctuary and more than ever, I need refuge.

-From a stirring keynote by author Roxane Gay, during the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute. “You are not just selling books,” she said. “You are providing sanctuary. You are the stewards of sacred spaces.”

Read the full keynote

The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Feminist Struggle

Photo: AP Images

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (1,800 words)

 

Mary Tyler Moore died this week at the age of 80, leaving what might be the most important feminist legacy in television history: Her Mary Richards, the main character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, inspired generations of women just by being among the first single, professional, over-30 women depicted on TV when the show premiered in 1970. Her iconic beret toss and theme song—”you’re gonna make it after all!”—encapsulated the Women’s Lib moment perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that Mary’s character was the subject of fierce debate among feminist leaders at the time. Like any “first” of an underrepresented group to break through in mainstream culture, Mary was attacked from all sides. While many male fans wrote letters voicing their disappointment when Mary stayed out all night on a date, feminist leaders voiced disappointment that Mary called her boss “Mr. Grant” while everyone else called him “Lou.” This conflict came to a head when one of the show’s co-creators, James L. Brooks, participated in a panel discussion at a women’s conference in 1975, as described in this excerpt from my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of the show. Read more…

Mary Tyler Moore on the Joys of Dancing

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Actress Mary Tyler Moore has died at the age of 80. Although she was best known for her iconic role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore was also a trained dancer and dreamed of making it into a career. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes, Moore wrote about how dance gave her strength and stability:

Dance, especially the training for it, is a big part of me. It shapes the discipline I’ve brought to my work as an actress, initiated my belief in the adage “No pain, no gain,” and generally provided a home that’s never changed. No matter what fears assaulted me, as person, actress, or dancer, dance was constantly giving me the familiar steps I needed to grow.

Dance has been my constant best friend.

During the seven years of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I arranged to have three portable ballet barres brought to the soundstage along with a huge mirror on wheels for class. It was a daily lunchtime event, presided over by a woman who’d been my teacher for some twenty years, Sallie Whalen. Music was provided by a classical pianist hired to accompany us on an upright that rolled to our spot in front of the newsroom.

There were usually eight to ten of us—Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, Beverly Sanders, who played Rayette the waitress on the series, me, and several others who’d once worked as dancers and were now spending their days driving car pools or working as actresses. There were a few young dancers who’d join us from time to time, and when it was over they loved to sit at our dinosaur feet and listen.

It was a touchstone for all of us—sharing the class with its all-too-familiar panting and groaning or sitting on the floor afterward applying bandages to our new blisters.

It was a sisterhood of sorts, not about feminism, but about the nearly religious connection that is ballet class.

I’m often asked where my strength comes from to accept diabetes and its impingement on my life. I do believe ballet gave me that ability. But it’s sad to note that within the successful actress writing this book beats the heart of a failed dancer.

So as I gave up the dream of being a world-famous dancer and became, much to my surprise, a world-famous actress, I clung to dance for pleasure, for structure, and for adventure. Dance took me to places I would never have been privileged to enter without it, and to meet people I revered—and do to this day.

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In 1971, the People Didn’t Just March on Washington — They Shut It Down

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L. A. Kauffman | Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism | Verso Books | February 2017 | 33 minutes (8,883 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Direct Action, by L. A. Kauffman. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.

The largest and most audacious direct action in US history is also among the least remembered, a protest that has slipped into deep historical obscurity. It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t part of the storied sixties, having taken place in 1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment. To many, infighting, violence, and police repression had effectively destroyed “the movement” two years earlier in 1969.

That year, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the totemic organization of the white New Left, had disintegrated into dogmatic and squabbling factions; the Black Panther Party, meanwhile, had been so thoroughly infiltrated and targeted by law enforcement that factionalism and paranoia had come to eclipse its expansive program of revolutionary nationalism. But the war had certainly not ended, and neither had the underlying economic and racial injustices that organizers had sought to address across a long decade of protest politics. If anything, the recent flourishing of heterodox new radicalisms—from the women’s and gay liberation movements to radical ecology to militant Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements—had given those who dreamed of a world free of war and oppression a sobering new awareness of the range and scale of the challenges they faced.

On May 3, 1971, after nearly two weeks of intense antiwar protest in Washington, DC, ranging from a half-million-person march to large-scale sit-ins outside the Selective Service, Justice Department, and other government agencies, some 25,000 young people set out to do something brash and extraordinary: disrupt the basic functioning of the federal government through nonviolent action. They called themselves the Mayday Tribe, and their slogan was as succinct as it was ambitious: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The slogan was of course hyperbolic— even if Washington, DC were completely paralyzed by protest for a day or week or a month, that would not halt the collection of taxes, the delivery of mail, the dropping of bombs, or countless other government functions—but that made it no less electrifying as a rallying cry, and no less alarming to the Nixon administration (Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, called it “potentially a real threat”). An elaborate tactical manual distributed in advance detailed twenty-one key bridges and traffic circles for protesters to block nonviolently, with stalled vehicles, improvised barricades, or their bodies. The immediate goal was to snarl traffic so completely that government employees could not get to their jobs. The larger objective was “to create the spectre of social chaos while maintaining the support or at least toleration of the broad masses of American people.”

The protest certainly interfered with business as usual in Washington: traffic was snarled, and many government employees stayed home. Others commuted to their offices before dawn, and three members of Congress even resorted to canoeing across the Potomac to get themselves to Capitol Hill. But most of the planned blockades held only briefly, if at all, because most of the protesters were arrested before they even got into position. Thanks to the detailed tactical manual, the authorities knew exactly where protesters would be deployed. To stop them from paralyzing the city, the Nixon Administration had made the unprecedented decision to sweep them all up, using not just police but actual military forces.

Under direct presidential orders, Attorney General John Mitchell mobilized the National Guard and thousands of troops from the Army and the Marines to join the Washington, DC police in rounding up everyone suspected of participating in the protest. As one protester noted, “Anyone and everyone who looked at all freaky was scooped up off the street.” A staggering number of people— more than 7,000—were locked up before the day was over, in what remain the largest mass arrests in US history. Read more…

Empathy and Escapism — Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

Photo by Michael Pittman CC-BY SA 2.0

Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

Writing was key to his thinking process, too: a tool for sorting through “a lot of crosscurrents in my own life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.”

At The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reports on how reading and writing helped President Obama to “slow down and get perspective” from novelists, memoirists, and historical figures during the eight years of his presidency.

Read the story

Longreads Best of 2016: Under-Recognized Books

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We asked our contributors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2016. Here they are.

* * *

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
A writer whose memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, is due from Ecco/Harper Collins in February.

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Randa Jarrar, Sarabande Books)

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?”

Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Ocean Vuong, Copper Canyon Press)

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…”


Ruth Curry
Co-publisher of Emily Books; writer, whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed, the Paris Review Daily, Nylon, Bookforum, and n+1; and author of the newsletter Coffee & TV.

Surveys (Natasha Stagg, Semiotexte)

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 Black Wave (Michelle Tea, Feminist Press)

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…

Hidebound: The Grisly Invention of Parchment

Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Keith Houston | The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time | W. W. Norton & Company | August 2016 | 18 minutes (4,720 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Book, by Keith Houston. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

To an ancient Egyptian of the third century BCE, the rolls of papyrus on which the country recorded its history, art, and daily business would have been of all-consuming importance. Scrolls made from papyrus were the medium for hundreds of thousands of books lodged at Alexandria’s wondrous library, and blank papyrus sheets were one of the chief exports to Egypt’s friends, allies, and trading partners across the Mediterranean. But papyrus’s 3,000-year monopoly was about to come under threat. Invented by Egypt’s upstart Hellenic neighbors and made from animal hides at great cost in sweat and blood, parchment was smooth, springy, and resilient where papyrus was rough, brittle, and prone to fraying. Its rise at papyrus’s expense, however, had little to do with the ergonomics of its use or the economics of its manufacture and everything to do with ambitious pharaohs who ignored the cardinal rule of military leadership: never get involved in a land war in Asia. Read more…