Chris Matheson, “Bill & Ted” Writer, Talks Cosmic Satire with Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #65

Chris Matheson, “Bill & Ted” Writer, Talks Cosmic Satire with Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #65

in Books, Comedy, Film, Podcasts, Pretty Much Pop | Tagged with: ,| October 22nd, 2020 Leave a Comment


Chris Matheson has written a bunch of comic movies including the new Bill & Ted Face the Music, and he’s converted religious texts into funnier books on three occasions, most recently with The Buddha’s Story. Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt talk with him about what unifies these projects: Why the big ideas of science fiction, fantasy, religion, and philosophy are begging in a similar way to be made fun of.

We get into the big questions: How does humor relate to fear? Would a society based on Bill and Ted (or Keanu Reeves) actually be desirable? How bad is the evident literal absurdity of many religious texts? Plus, the B & T joke that has not aged well, and much more!

A few articles that we found but didn’t really draw on included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Free Up the Prisoners

Free Up the Prisoners

Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants by Cesar Cuauhtémoc García Hernández. New Press, 208 pages.                                         

The Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants has generated anger and confusion, with deep resentment of the “kids in cages” phenomenon. Such outrage among Americans betrays a lack of knowledge of conditions for immigrants in the last twenty-five years. Previous administrations might not have made an open spectacle of separating children from parents at the border or unnecessarily locking up immigrants, but the U.S. Border Patrol could fairly be described as “monstrous” well before the Trump administration. Moreover, in 2017 and 2018, when the “children in cages” outrage was at its peak, most activists sought alleviation of prison conditions or reunification of children with parents, rather than broaching the idea of outright abolition of imprisonment.

One would have hoped that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, prison abolition would have gained strength, but so far—both for prisoners in general and immigrant prisoners in particular—even the horrors of intensely close-range contagion barely make a ripple in mainstream news coverage. In the last couple of years, the impression has taken hold that the dire crisis of minors in concentration camps has abated, yet there are still nearly seven thousand minors held in detention facilities across the United States. Meanwhile, the vast gulag of immigration prisons, which reaches back to the Clinton administration and has only expanded with each successive administration, doesn’t receive the scrutiny it deserves because we have become accustomed to the idea that many immigrants should be in prison.

If we no longer demand outright abolition of prisons, it’s partly because our minds have become saturated with images of immigrants in steel-wire holding pens, making us believe that this is normal. Would it surprise readers to learn that in the 1950s we had all but done away with immigration prisons? Indeed, this is what President Eisenhower’s attorney general Herbert Brownell attained with the closure of Ellis Island, typically romanticized as a welcoming disembarkation point but in reality also serving as a detention center at the same time. Ellis Island, like Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, was a zone apart, where constitutional norms did not apply. The fiction that the immigrant hadn’t really landed on American soil—which would trigger due process rights—was taken to extremes in cases such as that of Ellen Knauff, who was unjustly imprisoned from 1948 through 1951 on Ellis Island; she was confronted with secret evidence and hearsay that her admittance would be “prejudicial” to the United States. There has been a lasting double-standard, applying to today’s proliferating prisons along the southern border, where migrants continue to be deprived of human rights beyond the reach of constitutional law. The principle that the courts applied to Knauff—that due process can be denied for aliens refused entry—is the same faulty standard applied to immigrants today.

The vast gulag of immigration prisons, which reaches back to the Clinton administration, has only expanded with each successive administration.

The backstory of this presumably better past, when Knauff was one of the last of the cases of extended imprisonment, is that the decline of immigrant imprisonment followed the end of mass migration to the United States in the 1920s. By the 1950s, immigration was at historic lows and most immigrants and their descendants from the early part of the century had been fully assimilated; there wasn’t a perceived need for a punitive regime. It wasn’t liberal tolerance pervading the Eisenhower administration, which, incidentally, was also pursuing Operation Wetback at the same time. Within fifteen years of mass migration resuming after the 1965 immigration liberalization, imprisonment started becoming a reality as well.

Still, even during the Reagan administration, the number of immigrant prisoners was only in the low thousands, where they stayed into the early 1990s. But after President Clinton’s creation of the conditions for mass imprisonment—expanding the meaning of “criminal alien,” escalating the enforcement of minor technical violations, depriving asylum seekers and refugees of the benefit of the doubt, and ending the possibility of circular migration—the numbers rose steadily. Almost forty thousand people were in federal detention on any given day during the Obama administration. The problem of immigrants in prison, in short, is not a new reality; it has been a full-blown crisis since the Clinton administration, which set up the entire legal apparatus to justify mass imprisonment. The construction of prisons, and increasing reliance on private prisons, also reached new heights in the same period, affecting immigrants even more harshly than the rest of the population.

While the concept of “criminal alien” has recently become established in immigration enforcement, it is noteworthy that from 1892 to 1984 only 14,287 people were formally barred because of criminal activity. In 1970 a mere 575 people were charged with immigration crimes, while as late as 1993 this was true of just over 2,487 people. Even in 1994, only 8,604 people were locked up annually while facing charges of immigration crime. Today, half a million people each year spend some time in the immigration prison system.

In Migrating to Prison, Cesar Cuauhtémoc García Hernández puts both the financial and political motives for the explosive rise of immigration imprisonment into broader context. Many small towns rely on prison as a major source of jobs and revenue, their mayors and administrators being outspoken about the financial need. Florence, Arizona—one of Garcia Hernández’s examples—relies almost entirely on prison revenue, as two-thirds of the town’s population consists of various types of prisoners. As García Hernández notes, “The immigration prison is a reminder that human bondage based on racial and economic markers of undesirability can’t be relegated to some distant past.”

The prisons García Hernández has personally explored—the Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville, Texas, the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas, the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona—often go back and forth between serving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or the INS in the old days) to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), or in the other direction. The Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico “went from housing immigration offenders for the BOP to housing people ICE was trying to deport . . . while Willacy County . . . in Texas went in the opposite direction.” This is yet another nail in the coffin of deniability about immigration prisoners being a category apart.

While it may be consoling to preserve the fiction that immigration prisoners constitute a separate category, that they are not really prisoners in the ordinary sense, their actual mixing with prisoners of all sorts, in prisons and jails around the country, belies this comforting mythology. Immigrant prisoners, whether recent arrivals or long-term residents, are kept with regular prisoners serving long or even life sentences, and their treatment cannot uphold the myth that immigrants are mere “administrative detainees,” serving time for what are essentially civil violations. Prisoners wear different colored uniforms to signify whether they are there for immigration or other crimes, but they inhabit the same prisons under the same restrictions, and if that is the case, then they must be provided with the same defenses available to ordinary criminals. To call the facilities holding immigrant prisoners detention centers, service processing centers, or residential centers, rather than the prisons they actually are, is wrong and unhelpful to successful advocacy.

Immigrant prisoners are kept with regular prisoners serving long sentences, and their treatment cannot uphold the myth that immigrants are mere “administrative detainees.”

To be profitable, prisons only need prisoners, and getting paid lucratively by the federal government is what matters most, not the type of prisoner being acquired. The two leading private prison corporations, CoreCivic (which used to be CCA, or Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group (formerly the Wackenhut Corporation), along with smaller corporations such as Management & Training Corporation (MTC), have the same interest as lawmakers in both parties, and politicians at the local and regional level, in promoting the imprisonment of as many immigrants as possible. The federal government, after all, pays very handsomely, on the order of at least $140 a day per immigrant prisoner, or about $60,000 to $80,000 a year. Imagine how small a sum in comparison would be needed to help an immigrant facing legal trouble, by getting him or her an attorney and providing community support to fight their case in a transparent and supportive manner. It would not only be humane, but the cost savings would be enormous.

If we accept the idea of immigrant prisons—and the justifying logic of the “criminal alien”—so easily, it’s because, as García Hernández explains, in the post-civil rights era crime and drugs have substituted for overt racism. Mass incarceration since the Reagan era has been built on the conflation of crime, drugs, and race in order to mark out the undesirables. Mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing guidelines have reduced judicial latitude, while the popularity of the “broken windows” policing theory has fueled the zero-tolerance approach toward crime to a point where rational distinctions fail to be made.

Precisely the same logic has been applied to immigrant policing. Compassion is missing toward immigrants who may have been in the country for as long as twenty, thirty, or forty years, yet find themselves entrapped in the prison system for minor crimes committed and paid for long ago. The same is true of the resurgent application of such concepts as “crimes of moral turpitude,” which, as García Hernández explains, first arose as racism directed toward Chinese immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century. Mass incarceration in general was boosted by the war on drugs, such as in the much harsher punishment for possession of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. The same unreasonable distinctions apply to citizens versus noncitizens. It’s legal to buy 28 grams of marijuana from a dispensary in states that allow it, but a noncitizen, even a permanent resident, possessing 30 grams of marijuana is subject to ICE custody. García Hernández tells us that the Obama administration pursued a case about an immigrant possessing one pill of Xanax and another about a man with a sock containing four pills of Adderall all the way to the Supreme Court.

The inordinate, though obviously justified, public attention to Trump’s child separation policy and ICE raids has blurred the continuity of policies García Hernández describes. Take, for example, the case of Kamyar Samimi, an Iranian immigrant in his sixties who had lived in the United States for decades before he was arrested in 2017 for a prior possession of cocaine in a small amount, which literally ended his life due to lack of medical treatment for opioid withdrawal symptoms in the Eloy prison. Another typical example is that of David Rodriguez, a popular chef at Houston’s “it” cafe on the east side, Tout Suite, who, like Samimi, was imprisoned for a crime for which he’d already been sentenced and punished long ago. These instances of “aggravated felonies” fail to treat immigrants as human beings full of complexity, with both good and bad features, rather than the abstractions of pure goodness supported by the zero tolerance policy toward crime in general and immigrants in particular.

The 1996 Clinton-era immigration law known as IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act) has been the key instigator here, solidifying the concept of “aggravated felony,” which is often neither aggravated nor a felony, and can refer to something as minor as shoplifting or misinformation on tax returns, from which no relief can be obtained by way of judicial discretion (among the primary drivers of the rise of mass incarceration in general has been the attack on the discretion of judges), and which require mandatory sentencing and imprisonment prior to deportation. Along with aggravated felony, the other major contribution of the 1996 legislation was to establish the principle of “expedited removal,” which severely curtails the right of some immigrants to appeal deportation as in the past.

While narratives of immigrants embedded in desperation and crime provide the emotional fodder for incarceration, it turns out that even some of the most drummed-up instances of immigrant crime do not stand up to scrutiny. Though Trump has used the notorious Kate Steinle case to great demagogic effect, the immigrant charged with discharging the gun and killing Steinle on a pier has been found not guilty of the crime, and even the charge of unlawful possession of the gun (because he only picked up a gun wrapped in cloth under a bench) has been dismissed. Demonizing the “criminal alien” who murdered Kate Steinle is no different in essence from Obama’s enforcement slogan, “felons, not families,” without addressing the nature of crimes such felons are supposed to have committed, as well as the reality that felons like everyone else cannot be viewed aside from families and communities—unless we admit that crime substitutes for the racial vocabulary no longer permitted in public discourse.

It hasn’t helped that immigrant rights advocates have themselves provided much of the intellectual fuel for incarceration by separating good from bad immigrants, the good ones being the superheroes who never make a mistake, get angry, become undisciplined, lose employment, get a divorce, or commit abuse or are abused. The good versus bad dichotomy—which manifested most egregiously in the construction of the DACA recipients, or Dreamers, as superheroes without moral failings—falls into the trap of setting up desirable immigrants as the only ones deserving of public sympathy, thus leaving all the rest as ripe targets for the imprisonment trap. As García Hernández remarks, “Migrants are expected to live out the exceptionalism that U.S. citizens imagine in themselves.”

Language is important for the way we describe those who are ensnared in the immigration gulag, whether under Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Trump. It is vital to call them prisoners rather than detainees, because doing so highlights the anomaly of immigrant prisoners being treated like prisoners without having the rights of prisoners. The only solution—which immigrant rights supporters interested in seeing an end to imprisonment should consider—is to eliminate the fictitious distinctions between “criminal aliens” and normal criminals. To grant this false distinction is to open up an abyss in legal treatment, which is the foundation of immigration internment. Immigrant prisons are simply the physical space where the legal double-standard takes place in a corporeal sense, so instead of focusing on the prison, the legal vacuum behind the prison must assume centrality in advocacy work. In essence, the shadowy zone once represented by Ellis Island and Angel Island has become replicated all over the country.

In recent years, the prison abolition movement, building on the philosophical arguments put forth by Angela Davis, Calvin Dodge, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and other thinkers, has started to sound much like it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before it started falling victim to the law-and-order panic initiated by Nixon and followed up by every president since then. To apply Davis’s broad philosophical argument might yield a superior result than some of the knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s kids in cages abomination because our focus would then shift from the profit motive (which undoubtedly is a driver), or the temporariness of the violation, and move instead toward the dark imaginative forces that separate worthy and unworthy immigrants. We might go so far as to say that activists collaborate in the theoretical justification for immigrant imprisonment when they presume that a migrant must not have committed any sort of crime in order to be free.

Lest the reader think that abolition of prisons is a fantasy that has no chance of being applied in the immigration arena, in the strongest part of his book, García Hernández provides precisely such examples of real-life successes. These stand out even more than for the abolition of regular prisons because immigrant crimes are typically those of entry or reentry into the country, which are low-level violations. García Hernández provides examples of experiments during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s when resources were devoted to helping immigrants deal with their cases on the outside rather than inside a prison. In a future progressive administration, advocates should work to translate these earlier experiments into national policy as we look forward to total abolition of immigrant prisons rather than to impose selective human rights principles upon a basically immoral system. Just as restoration and rehabilitation are better alternatives to incarceration for the normal population, the same applies to immigrants who should be offered every chance to integrate in their communities while awaiting resolution of their cases.

The common misconception that an immigrant, if released into the community pending disposition of his or her case, will disappear into anonymity and never show up for a court date has been shown to be baseless because that’s just not how people operate. Immigrants, like anyone else, are part of families, neighborhoods, and communities. A few might disappear, but the overwhelming majority won’t. Thus the main justification to imprison immigrants—that if we release them on their own recognizance they will disappear and add to lawlessness—falls apart upon scrutiny. In fact, evidence shows that lawfulness increases when immigrants are treated as human beings and allowed to meet court dates, prepared and assisted by the community.

Lest the reader think that abolition of prisons is a fantasy that has no chance of being applied in the immigration arena, there are examples of real-life successes.

The Family Unity Project in New York released immigrants who showed up for court dates in overwhelming numbers, with a 98 percent success rate. Before getting a lawyer, 4 percent fended off removal; after getting a lawyer, 42 percent did. From 1987 to 1999, in a program initiated by the Reagan administration, the United States Catholic Conference moved the much-maligned Mariel Cubans into the community, with similar overwhelming success. In 1997 under the Clinton administration, the INS partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, with similar results. And during the Obama administration, ICE partnered with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and although it was a tiny program, it did have a 100 percent compliance rate in immigrants following court orders and abiding by legal requirements.

There is an obvious philosophical case to be made that if we want to elicit participation in legality, we need to make the process fair. If we imprison and harass immigrants, depriving them of the right to counsel in prison and separating them from their families and communities, they will obviously see the process as unfair and will have less reason to comply. But transparency and fairness will elicit participation in greater numbers rather than encouraging escape and hiding.

García Hernández argues throughout the book against the kind of narrow-minded “reforms” that consolidate the principle of immigrant imprisonment. But he points out other reforms that are more genuine and take us closer to abolition. Ending illegal entry and illegal reentry as federal crimes, separating ICE altogether from the criminal justice system, and providing every immigrant with a lawyer, a work permit, and community assistance are some of the most obvious means to make abolition a reality that works to enhance the spirit of lawfulness throughout the community. Opposed to these authentic reforms are the ones advocates spend so much time supporting, all of which only make the immigration prison system more resilient and permanent.

Under all recent administrations, Democrat or Republican, immigrants have often been put in prison as a matter of default. The definition of “criminal alien” becomes meaningless when we treat the act of migration itself as a crime, such as the seeking of asylum by means of physical presence, which is recognized under international law, or when we expand the definition of crimes by resorting to aggravated felonies, so that decades after the fact the immigrant finds himself paying a second, much higher, price by losing immigration status. Even more absurd is pressuring immigrants in prisons in ways that are designed to elicit resistance, which then makes one a criminal.

Migrating to Prison makes the persuasive case that the astronomical boom in imprisonment of immigrants stems from exactly the same root causes, both financial and political, as the dramatic escalation in mass incarceration. The case for abolition of prisons in general and immigrant prisons in particular rests on the same grounds. The unconscionable number of people in prison attests to the disjuncture between the actual occurrence of crime and the political interest in apprehending so-called criminals. The U.S. prison population went from around three hundred thousand to more than two million from 1980 to the present, with an even sharper escalation in the immigrant prison population; it’s not that crime went up by such an exponential amount, but that the definition of crime was altered. The starting point for defenders is to redefine whom we understand as criminals, which in turn should lead to the groundwork for abolishing prison. After paying the price for committing a crime, a person is supposed to be able to go back into the community; the same principle should apply to immigrants, rather than pretending that we can aspire to immigrants who will never commit any sort of a moral or legal violation, big or small.

Immigration prisons do not have to be part of our immigration system at all. Immigration can be administered without immigration prisons, as normal prisons can take care of the few actual criminals, a guiding principle campaigners would do well to remember. Perhaps García Hernández’s most radical idea is that “countering the dehumanizing spirit of the bipartisan embrace of immigration prisons needs to begin with a wholesale embrace of the imperfect humanity of migrants.” Unfortunately, a lot of advocacy work relies on tugging the heart strings toward blameless or victimized immigrants, as though the rest didn’t deserve equal sympathy and legal rights.

This Week in Books: Farewell Longreads! I’m Taking This Rodeo to Substack.

This Week in Books: Farewell Longreads! I’m Taking This Rodeo to Substack.

This is how many books you’ll be able to read about if you subscribe to my new substack. (Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash)

Dear Reader,

It’s been a wonderful five years! But sadly after today I will be leaving Longreads.

Let me tell you about how you can read my “This Week in Books” newsletter going forward, since I know you would all surely be bereft without it.

I will continue this project at my new substack, which over the weekend, in a galaxy-brained mania, has… evolved… beyond a simple newsletter. I would like to unveil to you, dedicated reader, the wonder and ruin that awaits you at… The End of the World Review; a micro magazine and teensy tiny literary review that is deeply alarmed by the imminent end of the world, but meanwhile just vibing. The End of the World Review will feature some of my favorite writers from Longreads plus new voices, as well as my classic weekly books newsletter, as seen in your inboxes since time immemorial.

You can choose to receive just the books newsletter (it’s still free), or you can support my new aspirational apocalypse magazine! Either way, to subscribe, go here. To follow on twitter, go here.

If you are short on cash but want to be counted among the elect, DM me @endworldreview or email me endworldreview@gmail.com and I’ll give you a code for a $1/month subscription or a free one if you need it.

If you are long on cash, then you might as well subscribe; after all, it is the end of the world.

I want to thank Mark Armstrong, Mike Dang, and the whole wonderful team at Longreads. It’s been a great few years, and I’ll really miss it. I’ve really loved every minute of my Longreads career: working with brilliant writers to produce accolade-accruing essays; working with yet more brilliant writers to produce book reviews, author interviews, and reporting on important topics like the climate crisis; excerpting cool new books by yet more brilliant writers; writing this nerdy as all get-out newsletter. I’ve loved it so much that… I’m not stopping.

So long and see you soon,

Dana Snitzky


1. “From Woe to Wonder” by Aracelis Girmay, The Paris Review

This is an exquisite essay, all its bends elegant, its turns refined. Drawing on Gwendolyn Brooks and Kamau Brathwaite, Aracelis Girmay describes her careful attempts to shield her young son from being touched by the malevolent hand of Whiteness for as long as she can; it’s disturbing to read how his white classmates have already succumbed to its perverse logic.

It does not occur to us to talk to our kids about Whiteness just yet, but increasingly I think we must. For example, I am startled, in February, by my son’s White schoolmate who runs into the hall to announce to his parent that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed because of the color of his skin. These months later I am again startled by the very young White children who speak openly and, it seems, without fear about George Floyd’s murder.

We are on a Zoom call with my child’s class. One of his White classmates has gone to a march with her family, in the middle of a pandemic, to march for Black Lives. The power of this is not lost on me. I am moved by their family’s investment and risk, a risk I do not take. I study the child’s face. The baby still in her voice, her cheeks, the way she holds her mouth. She says, “George Floyd was killed because…” And I click the sound off. My youngest says, “I can’t hear, Mommy.” Just a second, I tell them both, just a second.

2. “The Celebration of Juneteenth in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Juneteenth’” by Troy Patterson, The New Yorker

Troy Patterson writes about the sermon at the heart of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, which “exhort[s] worshippers to approach it as something like Passover—a day of deliverance on which to tell stories that keep history alive in memory.”

3. “Our First Authoritarian Crackdown” by Brenda Wineapple, The New York Review of Books

Brenda Wineapple reviews Wendell Bird’s Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a study of early American legal history which reveals that under the Adams Administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts were used to prosecute way more people than previously believed — not just newspapers and editors, but also regular people who spoke against Adams on the street. “When the very tipsy Luther Baldwin of New Jersey cried in a ‘loud voice’ (according to the indictment) that President Adams ‘is a damned rascal and ought to have his arse kicked,’ he was arrested for seditious speech. (He pled guilty and was fined $150 plus court costs.)”

4. “The History That James Baldwin Wanted America to See” by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., The New Yorker

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., writes about James Baldwin’s sympathy to the Black Panther philosophy and his dedication to telling an honest version of American history rather than one of triumphant progress. Glaude points to an impromptu speech Baldwin gave in 1968 — an introduction for Martin Luther King, Jr., at an S.C.L.C. fundraiser hosted by Marlon Brando: “By 1968, when [Baldwin] gave his speech [introducing King] in Anaheim, he saw clearly how the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, a few years earlier, might offer white America the sense of self-congratulation that Black Power was now denying it. He knew that the civil-rights movement could easily be conscripted into the story of how Americans, in their inherent goodness, had perfected the Union. The history being made could be bent in service of the lie.”

In July of 1968, just a few months after King’s assassination and against the backdrop of American cities burning, Baldwin gave an interview to Esquire. He set the tone of the exchange from the very start:

Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?

A. It is not for us to cool it.

Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?

A. No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.

5. Post-377: LGBTQ Literary Culture in India” by Saikat Majumdar, Los Angeles Review of Books

Saikat Majumadar writes about the explosion of queer literature in India after the decriminalizing of gay sex in 2018; Majumadar argues that after the legal victory, there was social pressure for writers to make celebratory and “out” narratives of queer life.

The celebratory narrative of post-377 India found clearest voice in the publication, by Penguin India, of Afghan-American journalist Nemat Sadat’s debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, a bildungsroman about a queer boy growing up in the masculinist, patriarchal culture of Afghanistan amid the warring currents of global ideologies. Sadat has been fond of telling the story of how his novel, rejected by US publishers, found ready acceptance in India, where the recent decriminalization of homosexual love made readers eager for this sort of narrative. Fiction was now expected to celebrate this newfound freedom and legitimacy, a fact that was brought home to me personally when the queer activist Chintan Girish Modi, in his popular column “The Queer Bookshelf,” gently accused my own novel, The Scent of God, of hushing queer love, pushing it back into the closet.

6. “Her Sentimental Properties” by Sarah Mesle, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Sarah Mesle reviews Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Woman Slave Owners in the American South, which I can attest is a deeply messed up read; the book is about white enslaver women’s tradition of “gifting” black people to one another on special occasions. It reads like a horror novel, not through any stylistic effort of the author, but just because the dry recounting of these things is freaky as hell. As Mesle writes, Get Out is a horror movie; They Were Her Property is historical scholarship. But when it comes to America’s racialized past, horror and history are hard to keep apart.”

7. “On Horseback” by Nell Painter, The Paris Review

Images of black protestors on horseback remind Nell Painter of her childhood rides with her father and bring her closer to her Western roots, which the whitewashed version of American history had made it difficult for her to claim. “Like so many facets of U.S. history, cowboy history has been lily-whited-out, via the movies’ exaltation of the cowboy as a white man. In so many ways, too much of U.S. history reads as a story of white men…. This is about to change. Although the current upheavals have begun with reforming policing, that’s only a start. History is being remade, including the history of the West. This new history, visualized in images of black women and men on horseback, brings me into more personal, more intimate connection with the political protests that demand wide-ranging, far-reaching improvements in our national life.”


This Week in Books: Bullets and Gas

This Week in Books: Bullets and Gas

A protester reads a book with the title “Why i’m no longer talking to white people about race” during a spontaneous Black Lives Matter march at Trafalgar Square to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and in support of the demonstrations in North America on May 31, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

The books newsletter seems a little irrelevant at the moment; it’s Monday night, and I’m pretty sure the president just pulled a reichstag. Ah, but ok, books, yes, that’s my job. So, first of all, I think you should read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and his follow-up How to Be an Antiracist. The former is a harrowing intellectual history of antiracism in America, and the latter is a how-to manual for antiracist living today.

Over at Jacobin, Robert Greene II wrote about how this moment feels like an echo of the Red Summer of 1919, which was a series of pogroms against blacks perpetrated by whites, and which also followed on the heels of a global pandemic. His article reminded me that we ran an interview with Eve Ewing last year about her book 1919, a collection of poetry written in response to the Red Summer attacks. “These kinds of violent histories are all around us,” Ewing said in the interview. “We have to take the time to stop and seek them out if we’re ever going to have any hope at social reconciliation.”

Another book that’s come to mind these last fews days is Anna Feigenbaum’s Tear Gas, which we excerpted a couple years ago. The book tells the story of the “full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote ‘war gases for peace time use’” that a few retired military grifters cooked up to pitch local governments on gassing their own citizens. And man did those local governments sure love the idea!

1. “What’s Happening?” by Elvia Wilk, Bookforum

Elvia Wilk surveys post-apocalyptic novels like Doris Lessings’ The Memoirs of a Survivor, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker in an attempt to imagine the post-covid world. “What will ‘after’ the pandemic look like? In some ways it is the wrong question to ask, because… giving it an after implies that there was a true before. Yet as writers of dystopian novels know, there was no before, there was only a time when ‘it’ wasn’t quite so unavoidably visible.”

2. “Brit Bennett’s New Novel Explores the Power and Performance of Race” by Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

While reviewing Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Parul Seghal dwells on the “uniquely American” genre that is the “passing” story; she writes that Bennett subverts the narrative’s expectations. “Brit Bennett brings to the form a new set of provocative questions: What if passing goes unpunished? What if the character is never truly found out? What if she doesn’t die or repent? What then?”

3. “Wartime for Wodehouse” by Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker

I never realized that P.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves novels, was persona non grata in the UK after the Second World War. Apparently he made a deal with the Nazis to do a little propaganda work for them in exchange for release from the camps. Rivka Galchen dives into the controversy, trying to get to the bottom of whether Wodehouse was just so irrepressibly upbeat that he couldn’t understand why his work for German broadcasters would be seen as propaganda.

4. “You Shall Also Love the Stranger” by Max Granger, Guernica

Max Granger effusively reviews John Washington’s The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, a book that Granger says “reads like a novel… It is a beautiful and grievous tangle of history, reportage, philosophy, and testimony…” Focusing on the story of one migrant family, Washington also spins his tale outward and inward, touching on the history, philosophy, and future of migration.

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5. “Les Goddesses” by Moyra Davey, The Paris Review

A sly and delicate essay from photographer Moyra Davey that skips between the lives and letters of various literary luminaries, never quite settling before it hops again. “Sitting on the floor in sunlight and reading through eight small notebooks going back to 1998, looking for a phrase about Goethe… I never found the reference; it was something I had stumbled across on the internet, but it led me to The Flight to Italy, Goethe’s diary (recommended by Kafka, in his diary), in which G. abruptly takes leave of a turgid existence in Weimar and travels incognito to Italy for the first time in his life.”

6. “On the Many Mysteries of the European Eel” by Patrik Svensson, Lit Hub

An excerpt from Patrik Svensson’s charming Books of Eels. “This is how the birth of the eel comes about: it takes place in a region of the northwest Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea, a place that is in every respect suitable for the creation of eels. The Sargasso Sea is actually less a clearly defined body of water than a sea within a sea. Where it starts and where it ends is difficult to determine, since it eludes the usual measures of the world… The Sargasso Sea is like a dream: you can rarely pinpoint the moment you enter or exit; all you know is that you’ve been there.”

7. “A Brief History of the Codpiece, the Personal Protection for Renaissance Equipment” by Dan Piepenbring, The New Yorker

Dan Piepenbring reviews Michael Glover’s Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art, which is, yes, a pictorial history of the codpiece. “Historians… not[ed] that it was ‘so voluminous it could serve as a pocket.’ And indeed it did, offering convenient storage for one’s hankie or a stray orange, in addition to ‘ballads, bottles, napkins, pistols, hair, and even a looking glass,’ as the scholar Will Fisher has written. With great size comes great decorative responsibility, and men of means rose to the occasion. They brocaded, damasked, bejewelled, embroidered, tasseled, tinseled, and otherwise ornamented their codpieces until they became like walking Christmas trees.”

Stay safe out there,

Dana Snitzky

Books Editor


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11 Spring Limited Edition Signed Box Sets

11 Spring Limited Edition Signed Box Sets


A street in the Soho section of New York City.


Of, relating to, characteristic of, or made by a number of people acting
as a group: a collective decision.

The Wooster Collective was founded in 2001. This site is dedicated to
showcasing and celebrating ephemeral art placed on streets in cities around
the world.

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