Outside Reading — The Orr Stratagem

dunce

The cleverness of stupidity by Tom Whyman

Drawing a few sharp illustrative examples from classic literature (including a ruse that leads to escape from the military for Orr in Catch-22), Tom Whyman shows how defiant rejection of learning is a solid strategy for unscrupulous and unkind people amassing cultural clout. Politicians feigning ignorance when asked direct questions are rightly held up for scorn, but some of Whyman’s most compelling animosity is directed at journalists who, presumably in an attempt to project evenhandedness, don’t immediately challenge the pure nonsense coming out of the mouths of those they interview. Seeing Chuck Todd respond with a prompt reality check to Senator Ron Johnson’s crackpot fulminating on Meet the Press this past weekend was jarring because it offered a reminder of the rarity of such an occurrence.

 

Alan Dershowitz and the wheel of pain by Lyz Lenz

chutzpah

In writing about Alan Dershowitz for the Columbia Journalism Review, Lyz Lenz is gifted with the perfect lede by the lawyer’s phone interview behavior, which pulls off the trick of being both boorish and childish. She could have made a tidy little article out of little more than his furious denials of accusations that he was an active participant in some of the vilest happenings orchestrated by Jeffrey Epstein. Instead, Lenz draws in a lot of research that provides understanding of how Dershowitz has gotten himself to this strange place where he disgraces his already mud-caked reputation a little more each day.

 

Trouble Boys: The True Adventures of the Replacements by Bob Mehr

trouble

I previously read the oral history book about the Replacements, so I figured I didn’t need to push through this quite weighty tome, too. How wrong I was. Bob Mehr fleetly goes through the tumultuous career of the famously self-sabotaging Minneapolis band, taking care to make sure that every last figure who passes through the book comes across as a fully realized person. I can’t judge how engaging this book will be for a reader not already happily familiar with the Replacements’ music, but for those who have a few (or all) of the records on the shelf, Mehr’s attention to detail is an absolutely delight. If nothing else, I’m deeply grateful that the book confirms the accuracy of my unquestioned favorite story about the band, involving Bob Dylan helping himself to an item in the Replacements’ well-stocked beer fridge while hanging out during a recording session.

My Writers — Molly Young

molly young
(source)

Despite the fact that I myself chose to sling my words around in the echoing void of the web wide enough to engulf the whole world, it took me a remarkably long time to land on the revelation that I could find favorite writers there. I have long been a prodigious consumer of digital content, a famished gourmand of information with a bottomless belly. But I tended towards sites and broad topic areas, rarely distracted by bylines and even less likely to make a mental note of wordsmiths who left me feeling extra ticklish after perusing one of their pieces. That personal shortcoming eventually changed (clearly), and the first writer to chip away at my unexplainable resistance, to make me really notice her, was Molly Young.

I first came upon Young’s work when it appeared on the blog This Recording, which I will confess, I mostly perused because it shared downloadable MP3s in a questionable relationship with U.S. copyright law, plopped at the end of snappish articles on pop culture. The essays usually got no more than a glance from me, my interest poofing into nothingness as soon as the thesis revealed itself as flimsy or the self-satisfied snark became overwhelming. This meant I rarely made it past the first paragraph before I scrolled down to click and save on the songs I coveted. Young’s pieces had an entirely different effect. They were witty and insightful and crackled with curiosity. Even when an article was little more than a listing of observations, Young brought inescapable personality to the work. Reading her work was a delight.

And then, as if Young were a college buddy rather than a stranger whose writing I enjoyed, I lost track of her. A modern feature and essay writer is called upon to hustle wherever the winds of freelance are blowing, and Young seemingly landed in cultural corners I wasn’t watching.

Then, a couple years ago, I flipped open The New York Times Magazine one sunny Sunday morning and started reading a profile of Chantal Bacon, a pretty, airy peddler of lifestyle enhancement products wrapped in an especially spiritual brand of quasi-science. The opening line was flat-out perfect: “The amount of time I waste finding and consuming alternative-medicine supplements for ‘brain function’ has made me at least 10 percent dumber, and that paradox is not lost on me.” The article goes on to wryly assess the collection of totemic miracle cures for the malaise modern life that Bacon bundles together into a lucrative philosophy, filling the column inches with inventive descriptions that effectively conveyed the strange world of isolated privilege where Bacon resides and plies her profession. “I passed the most expensive-looking mailbox I’d ever seen, and more varieties of security fence than you could possibly imagine, and houses that looked like every decade’s concept of the future,” the article offers about Bacon’s posh neighborhood, leading me to immediately decide I’d never before encountered a better description of grotesque wealth leveraged into ostentatious living spaces begging to be noticed.

The writer of the article was, of course, Young. My appreciation for her roared back in a rush, and I took advantage of the generous listing of hyperlinkable articles on her website to discover what I’d been missing. I also started scouring the newspaper for more of her words, especially once it became clear to me that she regularly contributed to the Sunday book review section. If Young was the writer, I read the review, irrespective of my interest in the book under her scrutiny. Time and again, I marveled at her wizardry with opening lines, whether in assessing a novelty work about odd, obscure laws (“Why not treat yourself to a crime spree this summer? It’s an easy and affordable way to have fun without consequences, as long as you choose your violations carefully”) or a novel about a compulsive Frenchwoman (“To be a recovering addict is to admit that your highest purpose is to avoid your worst impulses.”) or, spurring my favorite of Young’s ledes, a book about hunting down a foolproof hangover cure (“A thought experiment: If hangovers didn’t exist, what percentage of your life would you spend drunk?”). I’ve read none of those books, but I adore reading the results of Young reading them.

Writing about books is clearly Young’s main racket now. She parlayed a book-centric newsletter she developed into a staff job with New York magazine. Her Read Like the Wind can be subscribed to via the New York website. Young’s brisk, bright observations on a book are usually anchored by a “Recommended If You Like” notation that is inspired in its bundling of disparate references into a definitive characterization of the work in question. Having read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is In Trouble, I can confirm that Young’s RIYL gumbo of “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York, feeling slightly proud of yourself for finding Adam Driver hot, Paul Mazursky, trying to game your therapist” is spot on. The newsletter can also simply be accessed at the magazine’s website, like any other article, but I value having it urgently announce itself my inbox. I lost track of Young once before. I aim to not make that mistake again.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Outside Reading — Profound-Other-Fascination edition

zadie
(via)

Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s consideration of the broad field of fiction storytelling, published recently in The New York Review of Books is dazzling, provocative, cerebral, emotional, and deep as the ocean. Smith introduces ideas, counters them, and swerves around to their defense, weighing the risks and rewards of both writing and reading fiction. And she manages to somehow place her arguments in both a broad historical context and teetering atop the shifting tectonic plates of the current culture. The essay makes me long to crack open a new book and starting testing Smith’s theories against my own experience.

Outside Reading — Using Words Wisely edition

cancel
(via)

The “Cancel Culture” Con by Osita Nwanevu

Prompted by Dave Chapelle’s wrong-headed defense of Michael Jackson in his new Netflix special and the immediate dismissal of a new Saturday Night Live cast member after the exposure of his blatant, repeated, and remarkably recent use of bigoted language, Osita Nwanevu writes about the nonsense of lamenting the so-called “cancel culture.” The article draws clear, informative boundaries between genuinely oppressed speech and the condemnable commentary and actions of people who deserve ill repercussions and then wail about it when justice is served. Freedom of speech isn’t a guarantee of amplification, especially in businesses that rely on social goodwill to remain viable. Nwanevu’s piece is published by New Republic.

 

Canadian teen tells UN ‘warrior up’ to protect water by Melissa Kent

autumn

Greta Thunberg has understandably received a sizable amount of attention and praise (and venomous hatred from the usual suspects), but she’s not the only teen who’s standing up and insisting her future not be scorched away by the heartless unwillingness of our current leaders to solve problems, just because the solutions might cause minor inconveniences for the obscenely wealthy. Writing for CBC News, Melissa Kent profiles Autumn Peltier, a young member of the Wikwemikong First Nation. Peltier makes a compelling argument for the sanctity of water, positioning it as a basic human right. This isn’t a battle a thirteen-year-old should have to wage, but I’m grateful she’s doing it.

 

Train Dreams (2002) by Denis Johnson

train

Originally published in The Paris Review and released as slender novella several years later, Denis Johnson’s starkly lovely work of fiction is tender and soulful. A western in the Cormac McCarthy mode (as opposed to, say, the Zane Grey mode), Train Dreams follows its protagonist through decades of life, spanning from the nineteenth century well into the twentieth. It is an existence tinged by tragedy, but mostly defined by the smallness of its scale, even as the odometer of years spins ever higher. Johnson’s language is tight and precise, conjuring sweeps of emotion with just a few words. Train Dreams is richer and more resonant than far weightier tomes dripping in ambition. It is a tremendous piece of writing, fierce proof of the abiding power of wise, empathetic fiction.

Outside Reading — No Room for the Baker edition

no room

Why I Love Kids’ Books in Translation by Rivka Galchen

I recently listened to a podcast segment that was almost entirely comprised of the wonderful writers Rivka Galchen and Jia Tolentino chatting excitedly as they browsed through children’s’ section of a Brooklyn bookstore. There was such purity and poignancy to their appreciation of the books that stirred them as children, and it was strikingly free of nostalgia. In exploring the value of the books, the duo considered the literary mechanics and emotional impacts, affording the works the exact same inherent value any any revered tome anointed properly in the canon. A phase-shift contextualization was largely set aside in favor of evaluating these books as just books. Some of that tone carries over to this new essay by Galchen, written for Publishers Weekly, though there’s also plenty of retrospective child psychology self-analysis at play. With wonderful insight, Galchen mostly offers insights on the ways in which children’s books imported from other lands have their fantastical wonderment compounded. And, in a way, that applies to books for big kids, too.

 

party

Among the Moderate Chic at Bari Weiss’s Book Party by Boris Kachka

Writing for New York magazine, Boris Kachka mingles around a Manhattan party to commemorate the release of the first book by Bari Weiss, an intellectually suspect writer with a special talent for defending hideous men. In its simple recounting of the social event’s particulars, the article exposes the blithe detachment of all those assembled, the fussbudget fanciness shaped into a flimsy disguise of substance. The most telling element of the article is the repeated demurrals of those asked about Weiss’s more controversial views, further proof that membership in the club of elite opinion-flingers is more important than the value, weight, and impact of the actual opinions.

 

Outline (2014) by Rachel Cusk

Cusk-Outline

The plot of Rachel Cusk’s Outline — the first novel in a trilogy — can be describe in the barest of terms: A woman travels to Greece in order to teach a writing class, encounter others on her trip. On that frame, Cusk drapes the most elegant, beautiful tapestries of thought and language. Stories are told, exposing the characters through what is and isn’t said, and the small, brutal challenges — and, with less frequency, the tiny, fine graces — of merely existing in the world burble into sight. Cusk’s constant invention and deft, brisk structuring combine with an absolute command of tone to create the sort of writing that makes me a little embarrassed that I ever engage in the act of jumbling words together. It’s like making a three-orb snowman only to turn around and discovery someone else nearby has whipped up a reasonable replica of Elsa’s ice palace using the same tools and materials.

Outside Reading — The Twilight Bark edition

 

no excessive

‘NO EXCESSIVE BARKING’: A Chevy Chase dog park divides the rich and powerful by Jessica Contrera

Writing for The Washington Post, with a strong sense of playfulness fully engaged, Jessica Contrera examines a social skirmish taking place in a ludicrously well-heeled Maryland suburb. A dog park was recently opened, leading to embarrassingly entitled complaints from nearby neighbors who believe themselves to be the victims of a grave injustice because of the barking of happy canines and the occasional need for their lawn maintenance serfs to park in a different spot than usual. Because of our current hellscape, every story can turn into another example of economic disparity perpetuated without challenge, morality, or consequence resulting in the privileged few getting their way when they invent persecution. A clear public good — a place by and for the community — can be whittled away so Ms. Edwards can be spared the indignity of listening to a single sound not of her own choosing. There are also, of course, fretful insinuations that outsiders are patronizing the park, and an invasion of the rabble just won’t do. Contrera approaches the topic with the exact right tone: cheerful amusement untainted by countering outrage or a cable news–style escalation of the conflict. And she’s justly proud of landing “sniff one another’s butts” on the Post‘s front page. The picture above was posted on Twitter by Contrera, along with some shots of the adorable cub reporter who accompanied her on assignment.

 

bedbugs

The Unbearable Fragility of Bret Stephens by Jessica Valenti

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who specializes in pompously arguing bad opinions, endured his own moment of mortification this week when he needlessly harassed a college professor who made an online joke that a bedbug infestation in the venerable newspaper’s offices was actually a metaphor for Stephens’s presence on the masthead. The jibe was little-seen until Stephens amplified it considerably with his churlish, I’d-like-to-speak-to-your-supervisor response. Now the professor’s social media reach has expanded by tens of thousands, and Stephens is pathetically scrambling to make it appear he operates on a higher ground, including an absolutely ludicrous column in today’s paper that employs shaky research to position the bedbugs joke (which was, it must be typed, exceptionally well-structured) as the equivalent of Nazi rhetoric, all without directly referencing the imbroglio of his own making, as if the idea of writing such a piece just came up out of the blue. As I probably could have predicted, the person with the best take on the mess in Jessica Valenti, who is uniquely skilled at decimating the tangled arguments of aggrieved, overconfident men given far too much latitude in their inane, lunkheaded contributions to the public discourse. She wrote about it all for GEN.

 

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion (2019) by Jia Tolentino

trick mirror-001

A preternaturally gifted thinker and writer who has recently helped prove the wisdom of our household’s permanent subscription to The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino recently released her first book. Writing at an age that puts her squarely in the middle of the millennial generation, Tolentino offers several essays that consider what it’s like to exist within the current social structure, a heaving glob of outdated outlooks and progressive engagement, fragile personal connections and unbreakable social media links, of identity that needs to operate without a thousand disparate modes at once. The writing is breezy and conversation, but also deeply, deeply grounded in exhaustive contemplation of the topic at hand, often backed up with impressive research. Tolentino owns her contradictions, in part because there’s no other way for a thinking, feeling person to honestly proceed in an era of constant existential tumult. More than a decade ago, I spent a couple semesters teaching a college media studies class, and I struggled to find strong, thought-provoking readings about modern communication structures for the students. If I were teaching it today, Trick Mirror would be one of the required texts. That’s how well Tolentino addresses, well, everything about living right here, right now.

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh

rest relaxation

The second novel by Ottessa Moshfegh is set in New York City at the point the twentieth century was giving way to the twenty-first. The first-person narrator is a young woman who is so burdened by the sadness she feels — spurred by the recent death of both her parents, the emptiness of other personal relationships, and the twenty-something uncertainty of what exactly she should do with her life — that she decides sleep is the only acceptable escape, and she indulges in a symphony of pharmaceuticals to minimize her waking hours. Moshfegh’s writing is somehow both dense and light, layered with colorful details and brisk in its pacing. She finds pungent humor in the bleakest of scenarios and makes sure the small handful of characters — some barely represented beyond a few fairly indirect communications with the protagonist — are all vibrantly full in their rendering. My Year of Rest and Relaxation initially seemed slight to me, but its power and authority are cumulative. It’s wickedly inventive and disarmingly poignant.

Outside Reading — Chicken Run edition

chicken

The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America by Helen Rosner

In a divided age, when every day brings a new flurry of reasons for exhausting outrage at the crumbling norms of the republic, it was nice to have a little stretch in which the most animated online exchanges revolved around fast food sandwiches. I have no personal stance to take on the new fried chicken sandwich on Popeyes, but I’ve delighted in the weird spectacle. And the pinnacle of it all was this marvelously structured piece by Helen Rosner, writing for The New Yorker. The story that frames the article is a gem, and Rosner’s serious approach to considering the menu item as a dish to be critically analyzed is even better.

 

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is the Best Place on the Internet by MH Rowe

encyclopedia

While we’re on the subject of brief, blissful relief from the scalding procession of misery delivered with tireless efficiency by news sites and social media, MH Rowe’s celebration of the online version of the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction begins with that very premise. Published by Literary Hub, the article posits that the fluid, densely researched, and deeply considered entries of the digitized compendium of genre-specific information is one of the few places on the world wide web worth a visit. To a degree, Rowe has it easy. Simply listing the basic details of the the reference site makes for interesting reading. Rowe digs a little deeper, though, articulating with conviction why the online encyclopedia is special, including a compare-and-contrast look at changes to the entry on Ursula K. Le Guin after her death that solidly illustrate the value of the resource’s dynamic qualities.