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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

@danasnitzky

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

@danasnitzky

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This Week In Books: I Bought Some Books

This Week In Books: I Bought Some Books

Soldiers read books while maintaining social distancing due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at Foca Transport and Terminal Unit in Izmir, Turkey on April 29, 2020. (Photo by Mahmut Serdar AlakuÅ/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

My concentration is pretty much shot. So I have to confess I haven’t gotten very far into A Distant Mirror. I’ve mostly been playing Unciv on my phone and watching Devs and making curry and cleaning out the closet and periodically tweeting at A24 that I would really like to watch First Cow now and feeling slightly removed from my body. But that hasn’t stopped me from ambitiously and somewhat compulsively ordering even more plague books: The Great Mortality (about the black death) and The Great Influenza (about the 1918 flu, of course) from The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois; Asleep (about the mysterious pandemic of “sleeping sickness” that followed on the heels of the 1918 flu) and The Ghost Map (cholera) from The Bookstore at the End of the World; Pox Americana (smallpox) and Epidemics and Society (all of them!) from Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. (I also ordered Joan of Arc In Her Own Words from Split Rock Books in Cold Spring, New York, but that’s related to an entirely different phase I’m going through.)

I’m not sure what I feel like all these plague books will achieve. Will I read them all? Probably not. Will they all sit on my desk talismanically protecting me from getting sick? Of course, but that goes without saying. Will they make me feel more or less anxious? TBD, I’ll let you know.

Ordering the books was a circuitous choice for me because I’ve been having some trouble coming to grips with the fact that the American lockdown fell so short of what it should be; that we began talking about reopening before we ever, it seems to me, fully closed. All these bookstores I ordered from are places I used to work or are owned by friends of mine, and I know they’re doing their best to keep themselves and all their employees safe and paid (though The Bookstore at the End of the World is a Bookshop site begun by a group of bookstore employees who were covid-furloughed by their employers). What that means, practically, is that because none of these stores have employees on site, all of these orders were fulfilled “direct,” which, in the rarefied parlance of bookselling which I know from my years in the business, means they were shipped directly to me from one of the wholesaler’s warehouses (the bookstores get a cut of the sale, although a smaller cut than normal). The wholesaler in this case — in all cases, as far as I know, including orders placed through Bookshop — is Ingram, the behemoth book distributor rivaled in reach only by Amazon and owned by the billionaire Ingram family. Early on in the pandemic, as lockdown began rolling across the country, I thought for certain that the warehouses themselves would soon close — not just Ingram and the smaller regional wholesalers, but the publishers’ warehouses as well, not to mention the printers! I thought the whole industry would have to, at least momentarily, pause. But while many publishers have pushed back the release dates for their spring titles and laid off employees (so that’s not going well) and one major printer has closed (while another has filed for bankruptcy, so that’s not going well), the major publisher warehouses themselves, as far as I can tell, have stayed open — with social distancing measures in place, of course. (The situation at the Big Five publishers feels a little opaque to me, but smaller publishers/distributors such as Small Press Distribution, a longtime distributor of micro presses, have been clear about their need to raise money.) Ingram, meanwhile, has been considered essential throughout the country during the pandemic and its warehouses have remained open and shipping direct to customers (as well as, of course, to stores in states where things like curbside pickup and receiving/shipping in and out of the store are still allowed — Point Reyes Books in California made an excellent video of what that looks like).

And so, what I’m trying to get at is that in the beginning of the pandemic I thought the best way to support bookstores was to order gift cards and donate to fundraisers (special shout out to Unnameable Books in Brooklyn and The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago) or maybe order audiobooks or ebooks if that is your thing (though independent bookstores earn somewhat slim percentages of those sales, when they are able to offer them at all), convinced as I was that any sort of physical shopping would be tantamount to forcing warehouse and postal workers to endanger themselves, and that those warehouses would soon close down anyway! But I suppose that lately, despite few if any tangible signs that the spread of the virus has begun to decline in America, I let the growing narrative that “corona is nearly over now” and “the country is reopening soon” seep into my brain. And so, to be frank, I ordered some extremely nonessential stuff.

I guess I stopped expecting that the book warehouses would shut down. I stopped expecting the peak and have settled for the plateau.

But I’m sitting here staring at this copy of Epidemics and Society, which has already arrived and which I have set in a “decontamination pile” because we’re running low on disinfectants in my apartment, and I’m wondering, if I’m afraid to touch it, should I really have had someone send it? It’s a ghoulish feeling.

When the pandemic was starting, my feed was full of people tweeting about buying Nintendo Switches, so I mean, I’m aware that I’m not the only person in the world to buy something nonessential during the pandemic. I guess it’s possible I’m just being overwrought, here.

But it still seems like something is fishy about all this. I still feel like a ghoul. I feel like we have settled for a rolling epidemic until (purely theoretically!) herd immunity is reached, but we are doing it without admitting that that’s what we are doing— or acknowledging who will suffer for it (prisoners, warehouse workers, grocers, nurses!). And business owners are being forced into this mass casualty scheme because federal and local governments refuse to provide financial relief.

So, yeah, I have no idea where I’ve landed here. Am I ghoul for buying all these plague books? I mean, ok, yes; we all know the answer is yes.

I’m a ghoul with just enough plague books to tide me over until the second surge.

1. “The Pre-pandemic Universe Was the Fiction” by Charles Yu, The Atlantic

Sci-fi writer Charles Yu weighs in on reality. “Years ago, I started writing a short story, the premise of which was this: All the clocks in the world stop working, at once. Not time itself, just the convention of time. Life freezes in place. The protagonist, who works in a Midtown Manhattan high-rise, takes the elevator down to the lobby and walks out onto the street to find the world on pause, its social rhythms and commercial activity suspended. In the air is a growing feeling of incipient chaos. I got about midway through page 3 and stopped. I didn’t know what it meant.”

2. “What Rousseau Knew about Solitude” by Gavin McCrea, The Paris Review

Novelist Gavin McCrea writes about Rousseau’s lonely years, noting that the thinker’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker are haunted by the society they seek to avoid. “Looking at himself through the eyes of society, he is ‘a monster,’ ‘a poisoner,’ ‘an assassin,’ ‘a horror of the human race,’ ‘a laughingstock.’ He imagines passersby spitting on him. He pictures his contemporaries burying him alive. Rumors about him are, he believes, circulating in the highest echelons: ‘I heard even the King himself and the Queen were talking about it as if there was no doubt about it.’” This version of Rousseau sounds, to me, pleasantly like a morose Twitter poster. It just feels very familiar. I feel like I could scroll through Twitter right now and see some defeated soul posting that if they ever walk in public again, they will be spit on and the Queen will hear about it.

3. “Creation in Confinement: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” by Nicole R. Fleetwood, The New York Review of Books

An excerpt adapted from Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, in which she surveys art created by incarcerated people or made in response to incarceration. Fleetwood describes the unique challenges of documenting prison art: “…many of the artists, whether currently or formerly incarcerated, do not have possession of their art, nor any documentation of their work, nor knowledge of how and where their art has circulated… art made in prison may be sent to relatives, traded with fellow prisoners, sold or ‘gifted’ to prison staff, donated to nonprofit organizations, and sometimes made for private clients. There are people I interviewed who described their work and practices to me but had nothing to show.”

4. “The Exclusivity Economy” by Kanishk Tharoor, The New Republic

Author Kanishk Tharoor reviews Nelson D. Schwartz’s The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business, an exploration of the byzantine hierarchies that have emerged in all manner of consumer-facing industries to separate the wealthiest customers from the chaff. “What these changes augur, in [Schwartz’s] view, is the crystallization of a caste system in the United States and the birth of a new aristocracy.”


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5. “Gay Literature Is Out of the Closet. So Why Is Deception a Big Theme?” by Jake Nevins, The New Yorker

Jake Nevins surveys recent queer fiction and finds that deception is a major theme, even when it’s not explicitly the deception of the closet. “For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Dorian Gray to Tom Ripley, the lie of the closet was the hinge upon which queer literature would pivot, reflecting what were then the often judicial or mortal costs of being openly gay. Insincerity, ‘merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities,’ as Dorian Gray put it, was the mode of congress gay men had been taught to adopt for the sake of self-preservation…”

6. “The Surreal Stories of ‘Lake Like a Mirror’ Show How Power Distorts Reality” by YZ Chin, Electric Literature

YZ Chin interviews Chinese Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong about her short story collection Lake Like a Mirror, recently translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Ho says her stories try to reflect the way the exercise of power distorts reality. “I think a surrealist style can twist the surface of a reality that presents as neutral. Then we can see reality as a screen that has been yanked askew, and its seemingly solid surface starts to be pulled apart. Through this we realize that reality can be distorted by power. This isn’t something realism can achieve.”

7. “What if, Instead of the Internet, We Had Xenobots?” by Garth Risk Halberg, The New York Times

In his review of the long-awaited second novel from Adam Levin (author of the 1,000-page widely lauded high school bildungsroman The Instructions), Garth Risk Halberg writes that “Levin can make the kitchen-sink ambition of (mostly white, mostly male) midcentury postmodernism feel positively new.” His latest book, Bubblegum, is about “a novelist-cum-memoirist-cum-unemployed schlub named Belt Magnet, of the fictional Chicago suburb of Wheelatine, Ill.” who can “hear the suicidal pleas of certain inanimate objects through a telepathic ‘gate’ above his right eye” and was one of the first patients therapeutically paired with a “botimal” aka “a mass-produced… velvety soft, forearm-length, ‘…flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend®!’”

8. “No Sleep till Auschwitz” by Jeremy M. Davies, The Baffler

New fiction from Jeremy M. Davies, author of The Knack of Doing, presents a fictionalized publishing industry that is — purely fictionally speaking, of course! — terrible. “Drucksteller saluted the long con of literature by way of the time-honored method of stealing a ream of copy paper and not flushing the toilet on his way off the estate.”

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky


Books Editor

@danasnitzky

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