Tag Archives: excerpts

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…

The Slave Who Outwitted George Washington

Erica Armstrong Dunbar | Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge | Atria / 37 Ink | March 2017 | 19 minutes (5,244 words)

***

MOUNT VERNON

Two years after the death of her owner, Betty learned her mistress was to remarry. She most likely received the news of her mistress’s impending second marriage with great wariness as word spread that Martha Custis’s intended was Colonel George Washington. The colonel was a fairly prominent landowner with a respectable career as a military officer and an elected member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His marriage to the widowed Martha Custis would offer him instant wealth and the stability of a wife and family that had eluded him.

A huge yet necessary transition awaited Martha Custis as she prepared to marry and move to the Mount Vernon estate, nearly one hundred miles away. For Betty, as well as the hundreds of other slaves that belonged to the Custis estate, the death of their previous owner and Martha’s marriage to George Washington was a reminder of their vulnerability. It was often after the death of an owner that slaves were sold to remedy the debts held by an estate. Read more…

How David Bowie Came Out As Gay (And What He Meant By It)

Simon Reynolds | Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century | Dey Street Books| October 2016 | 19 minutes (5,289 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Shock and Awe, by Simon Reynolds. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically.
Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.

On Sunday afternoon, 16 July 1972, David Bowie held a tea-time press conference at the Dorchester, a deluxe five-star hotel on London’s Park Lane. Mostly for the benefit of American journalists flown in to watch him and his new backing band, The Spiders from Mars, in action, the event was also a chance to show off Bowie’s new ‘protégés’, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. They had – separately – made their UK live debuts on the two preceding nights, at the exact same venue, King’s Cross Cinema.

Glammed up in maroon-polished nails and rock-star shades, Reed sashayed across the second-floor suite and kissed Bowie full on the mouth. Sitting in the corner, Iggy also displayed a recent glitter makeover, with silver-dyed hair, eye make-up and T. Rex T- shirt. Reed, Iggy and Bowie would later pose for the only known photograph of the threesome together, Bowie looking resplendent in a flared-cuff Peter Pan tunic made from a crinkly, light-catching fabric. That was just one of three outfits he wore that afternoon – surely the first time in history a rock’n’roll press conference involved costume changes.

During a wide-ranging and somewhat grandiloquent audience with the assembled journalists, Bowie declared: ‘People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.’ What a strange thing to announce – that you’re the herald of Western civilisation’s terminal decline, the decadent symptom that precedes a collapse into barbarism or perhaps a fascist dictatorship. But would an ‘absolute walking mess’ really be capable of such a crisply articulated mission statement? There’s a curious unreality to Bowie’s claims, especially made in such swanky surroundings. Yet the reporters nodded and scribbled them down in their notepads. Suddenly Bowie seemed to have the power to make people take his make-believe seriously … to make them believe it too. Something that in the previous eight strenuous years of striving he’d never managed before, apart from a smatter of fanatical supporters within the UK entertainment industry.

Some eighteen months before the Dorchester summit, the singer had looked washed-up. Deserted by his primary collaborators Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, he put out the career-nadir single ‘Holy Holy’. (Can you hum it? Did you even know it existed?)

Yet a little over a year later, Bowie had everybody’s ears, everyone’s eyes. His fortunes had transformed absolutely: if not the biggest star in Britain, he was the buzziest, the focus of serious analysis in a way that far better-selling contemporaries like Marc Bolan and Slade never achieved. No longer a loser, he had somehow become the Midas man, a pop miracle-worker resurrecting the stalled careers of his heroes, from long-standing admirations like Lou Reed to recent infatuations like Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. Sprinkling them with his stardust, Bowie even got them to change their appearance in his image. There was talk of movies and stage musicals, the sort of diversification that’s tediously commonplace in today’s pop business, but back then was unusual and exciting.

‘People look to me to see what the spirit of the Seventies is,’ Bowie said to William S. Burroughs in a famous 1974 dialogue convened by Rolling Stone. This was not boasting, just the simple truth. How did Bowie manage to manoeuvre himself into place as weathervane of the zeitgeist? The battle was not won on the radio airwaves or at record-store cash registers. There are bands from the early seventies who sold millions more records than Bowie ever did, but they never came near to having the high profile he had at the time and are barely remembered today. Bowie’s theatre of war was the media, where victory is measured in think pieces and columns, controversy and the circulation of carefully chosen, eye-arresting photographs. Read more…

Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)

 

This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

* * *

Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before. Read more…

King-Killers in America (and the American Who Avenged the King)

Michael Walsh & Don Jordan | The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History | Pegasus Books | August 2016 | 26 minutes (6,559 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The King’s Revenge, by Michael Walsh and Don Jordan. The story takes place in the wake of the English Civil War, fought between the Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”), who favored limitations on the king’s power and had the support of radical Protestant religious minorities (such as Puritans), and the Royalists (“Cavaliers”), who were loyal to the throne and were mostly members of the Church of England.  In 1649, the victorious Roundheads tried and executed the king, Charles I. After the coronation of his son Charles II in 1661, known as the Great Restoration, Charles launched a global manhunt for the 59 judges who signed his father’s death warrant, as well as the court officials who tried the case, collectively known as the “regicides.”

Many of the regicides fled to other countries, and below we found out what happened to those who fled to America, as well as to those were pursued by an American in Europe. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

If what he had done against the King were to be done again, he would do it again.

The spring of 1661 was significant not only for the crowning of the king. Hitherto Charles had paid little attention to the capture of regicides abroad, but that was about to change. As carpenters sweated over the erection of those magnificent coronation arches with their dual themes of royal triumph and revenge, Charles unleashed his bloodhounds in America and Europe. Two royalists set out from Boston to lead a hunt across New England for Whalley and Goffe, and the most ruthless operator in the king’s service was drafted in to spearhead a search across Europe for Ludlow and the other nineteen regicides who had escaped in 1660.

The American manhunt was launched on May 6 by John Endecott, governor of Massachusetts. Endecott had received an arrest order from the king which, dispensing with flowery courtesies, had been brutally curt:

Trusty and well-beloved,

We greet you well. We being given to understand that Colonel Whalley and Colonel Goffe, who stand here convicted for the execrable murder of our Royal Father, of glorious memory, are lately arrived at New England, where they hope to shroud themselves securely from the justice of our laws; our will and pleasure is, and we do hereby expressly require and command you forthwith upon the receipt of these our letters, to cause both the said persons to be apprehended, and with the first opportunity sent over hither under a strict care, to receive according to their demerits. We are confident of your readiness and diligence to perform your duty; and so bid you farewell.

Read more…

Becoming One of the World’s 65 Million Refugees

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson | Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis | The New Press | September 2016 | 20 minutes (5,452 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Cast Away, by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

This war is none of my business.

Majid Hussain didn’t know who would turn up on his doorstep first: Colonel Gaddafi’s foot soldiers following orders to purge Libya of its migrant workforce, or vengeful rebels wielding Kalashnikovs and the conviction that everyone with black skin deserved to be lynched.

For months the Nigerian teenager had watched on television in Tripoli as rebels not much older than himself stormed through the desert in their cheap sunglasses and mismatching camouflage, and it had seemed inconceivable that this shabby army of the disaffected could pose a threat to Muammar Gaddafi’s calm and ordered capital. He had heard rumours that all Africans from south of the Sahara were at risk of attack from rebels seeking mass punishment for the few who had colluded with the regime – but surely these were just rumours? Every day Majid still went to work and returned home every evening to his reliable air-conditioning and his satellite TV. The rebellion had remained remote from his life, and he wanted it to stay that way.

This war is none of my business, he thought. I have already seen my own country torn apart by old hatreds – I don’t need to see that again.

Majid and his housemate Ali had laughed off reports on CNN and the BBC about fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli, and they didn’t want to believe the news that Gaddafi was bombing civilians in Benghazi. It was all Western propaganda, the two Nigerians convinced each other. Even when a spokesman for Gaddafi warned on public radio that they would flood Europe with migrants if there was any Western military action, the young men remained unconcerned. Read more…

A Stranger in the World: The Memoir of a Musician on Tour

Franz Nicolay | The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar | July 2016 | 25 minutes (6,916 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Humorless Ladies of Border Control, by Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist in The Hold Steady. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

You don’t travel for comfort; you travel to justify the daily discomfort, … the nagging doubt, sadness, weariness, the sense of being a stranger in a world.

Our roommate on the sleeper train from L’viv to Kyiv was a stocky, ham-fisted forty-five-year-old veterinarian. A friend of his, he told us, had a visa to America in the 1980s, but he got caught stealing from the grain quota and now can’t go to America ever. He had conspiracy theories and opinions he was eager to share: they didn’t kill bin Laden, it could have been “any tall guy with a beard”—for that matter, I, Franz, look a little like bin Laden, don’t I? And we haven’t seen that much of Michelle Obama recently, have we? If there’s not a trumpet, it’s not jazz. Vitamin C doesn’t work, all you need is raspberry tea with lemon and the love of a good woman. Everyone’s been there— first beer, first guitar, first girl.

He stripped down to what would once have been called his BVDs, nearly obscured by his hairless belly, and snored all night. When we awoke, he was gone, replaced by an older man with a lined face and Clint Eastwood stolidity. “He has the saddest face I’ve ever seen,” Maria said. He slept first, facedown and fully clothed; then, when I returned from the bathroom, he was sitting upright, bag beside him, staring out the window. He never said a word.

I was a musician then, often traveling alone, sometimes with my new wife, Maria. I hadn’t always traveled alone: for years I had been a member of the kind of bands who traveled in marauding, roving packs, like “Kerouac and Genghis Khan,” as the songwriter Loudon Wainwright once put it. First there was the nine-piece circus-punk orchestra World / Inferno Friendship Society, a monument to pyrrhic, self-defeating romanticism and preemptive nostalgia that still haunts me like a family lost in a war. But I had ambitions, and World / Inferno had “underground phenomenon” baked into the concept. So I jumped to a rising neo–classic rock band called the Hold Steady, which became, for a few years, one of the biggest bands in what is, for lack of a term of representation rather than marketing, called “indie rock.” We opened for the Rolling Stones and played the big festivals and bigger television shows. Our victory-lap touring constituted an almost audible sigh of relief that we’d finally arrived— we’d never have to work a day job again. Read more…

On Female Friendship and the Sisters We Choose for Ourselves

Chloe Caldwell | I’ll Tell You In PersonCoffee House Press | October 2016 | 19 minutes (4,768 words)

“Do you get in bed and cuddle with Chloe in the mornings?” It was an early evening in spring, and Bobbi and I were in the kitchen, standing across from each other at the counter. We’d just finished eating pizza and salad with ranch on the back porch. Bobbi’s mom, Cheryl, was on speakerphone, calling from her hotel to check in on us.

“She doesn’t!” I said, making eye contact with Bobbi, who looked at me skeptically in a way only an eight-year-old can.

“Yeah but that’s ’cause . . . well, do you sleep naked?” Bobbi asked, lowering her deafening voice for once like she was asking me in total confidence.

I burst out laughing.

“No!” I said.

I’ve had countless sleepovers with Bobbi in the past three years, and I never don’t pretend she’s my little sister, even though, at twenty-eight, I’m too old to be her sister. I feel too young and immature to be her mother. At twenty-eight, I’m more like an aunt or a cousin. I could easily be engaged or pregnant or have children of my own. But that is not my life. Instead, I babysit, still waiting for my real life to begin. In limbo. A friend sent me a birthday card that read, Happy Saturn Return, good luck with that, seriously.

“You could be in India having sex next year,” Cheryl told me once when I was down on myself about being such a loose end in the domestic department.

“Whereas I probably won’t!” she said.

When Cheryl called that night, Bobbi and I had been in the middle of an improvised séance, though I was unsure what dead person we were trying to contact. We held hands around an orange candle and chanted gibberish. It reminded me of the opening scene in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

In a mock new-age voice, Bobbi said, “o.k. now breeeeeeeaaathe in the baaaaaad energyyyyyy.”

“No way! Not doing that,” I said.

“Yeah but then you breathe it out.”

“Yeah but why do I have to breathe it in at all?”

“Just trust me and do it.”

“K.”

“Now look up at the sky and repeat after me: Iloveyoumommy-Iloveyoumommy.”

“IloveyoumommyIloveyoumommy.”

The phone rang. We screamed.  Read more…

How the Brontës Came Out As Women

Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical recep­tion of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventu­ally, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”

Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement. Read more…

Mass Extinction: The Early Years

Ashley Dawson | Extinction: A Radical History | OR Books | July 2016 | 13 minutes (3,487 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Extinction: A Radical History, by Ashley Dawson, who argues that contemporary mass extinction is a result of the excesses of the capitalist system. In this chapter, Dawson gives a brief history of the ecocidal societies that came before ours. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

“Gilgamesh listened to the word of his companion, he took the axe in his hand, he drew the sword from his belt, and he struck Humbaba with a thrust of the sword to the neck, and Enkidu his comrade struck the second blow. At the third blow Humbaba fell. Then there followed a confusion for this was the guardian of the forest whom they had felled to the ground. For as far as two leagues the cedars shivered when Enkidu felled the watcher of the forest, he at whose voice Hermon and Lebanon used to tremble. Now the mountains were moved and all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh (2500–1500 BCE)

When did the sixth extinction begin, and who is responsible for it? One way to tackle these questions is to consider the increasingly influential notion of the Anthropocene. The term, first put into broad use by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, refers to the transformative impact of humanity on the Earth’s atmosphere, an impact so decisive as to mark a new geological epoch. The idea of an Anthropocene Age in which humanity has fundamentally shaped the planet’s environment, making nonsense of traditional ideas about a neat divide between human beings and nature, has crossed over from the relatively rarified world of chemists and geologists to influence humanities scholars such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, who proposes it as a new lens through which to view history. Despite its increasing currency, there is considerable debate about the inaugural moment of the Anthropocene. Crutzen dates it to the late eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution kicked off large-scale emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This dating has become widely accepted despite the fact that it refers to an effect rather than a cause, and thereby obscures key questions of violence and inequality in humanity’s relation to nature. Read more…