Outside Reading — Red and White and Black and Blue edition

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Americans Are Sad About Politics. Who Could Blame Them? by Clare Malone

Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone explores the exhausting nature of the current culture for politically attuned citizens, defined by a cascade of norm-shredding outrages and out-and-out criminal actions by the marauders presiding over the executive branch of the United States government. This is hardly a new topic, but Malone goes a little deeper than most, directly addressing the growing challenge in making a distinction between a “moral issue” and a “political issue,” a problem compounded by the widespread habit (indulged in more often by Republicans than Democrats, it must be typed) of basing policy judgments on party alliance rather a consistent worldview. The extrajudicial confinement of human beings in dictionary-definition concentration camps should lead to conversations shaped by morality and ethics, and raising concerns need not be seen as a political act. If there’s no movement towards freeing public discourse from the mere side-taking fo cable-news chattering, we’re doomed to pervasive and shameful moral failing as a society.

 

Notice Me!: How Fandom Endangers Female Musicians by Caitlin Wolper

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Drawing on interviews with an array of female musicians (including the fab-and-a-half singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus, pictured to the right), largely operating on the “indie” side of the business, Caitlin Wolper details the ways in which toxic fan behavior regularly creates unpleasant, sometimes downright dangerous environments for performers trying to do their jobs. It’s mostly men who are invading the spaces and threatening the safety of these musicians, though it is occasionally other women behaving with entitled impropriety. Wolper lists reported infractions with measured thoroughness, providing a strong sense of the sheer inability of the performers to ever completely let their guards down. More important, she expends the words to explore why this problem is happening, perhaps with greater intensity than before. In creating effective and compelling art, the musicians develop a sense of intimacy with their listeners that can be spun into a certainty of deep connection felt by the fans. In turn, the nebulous relationship can turn ugly when the bonding doesn’t happen both ways, because of course it doesn’t. Usually, misplaced convictions of personal ownership among a fanbase are simply embarrassing. It is equal parts infuriating and heartbreaking that it can instead turn frightening for some talented women plying their trade.

 

The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) by Joan Didion

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Joan Didion’s novel reaches back to a time ten years before its publication, crafting fiction out of the very real geopolitical manipulations the U.S. government perpetrated in Central America. The book is written in crisp, terse language, as if Didion, the consummate essayist, is trying to give every chapter the zing of a strong kicker to a magazine feature. It makes for a quick read, but also keeps the characters and the scenarios feeling a little distant. The Last Thing He Wanted turns into the inverse of a John le Carré novel. Where the British novelist specializes in eternally sinking plunges into the details of espionage, Didion takes the furtive tinkering of shadowy figures and renders in the abstract. In truth, I might need an approach that lies somewhere in between the two.

Outside Reading — Life, Liberty, Etc. edition

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This 2018 AP photo shows caged children in a Texas facility.

Meet the people fighting for health care access for disabled kids detained at the border by s.e. smith

The grotesque immorality and abject cruelty currently being perpetrated against human beings attempting to immigrate into the U.S. — most of them seeking asylum and therefore entering the country legally — casts a grim shadow on this long weekend of patriotic celebration. The multitude of callous, unforgivable actions are so vast that new examples of heartlessness can be illuminated on a daily basis. For Vox, s.e. smith explores the brutish disregard for the medical and mental health needs of the gratuitously incarcerated people and highlights the handful of humanitarian organizations valiantly trying to help in the face of federal officials operating with an astonishing combination of intransigence and ineptness. The situation is truly approaching “crimes against humanity” levels.

 

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BEFORE YOU CALL OUT OUR HYPOCRISY, LET US REMIND YOU THAT WE DON’T CARE by Lawrence Wang

McSweeney’s has become a tremendous outlet for absolutely scathing political satire, the effectiveness of the pieces bolstered significantly by a firmly established practice of including hyperlinks to news stories that provide legitimate context for the bleak comic commentary. Writing in the collective voice of the GOP, Lawrence Wang illustrates why the dwindling number of left-leaning U.S. political figures who still speak of compromise — most notably Joe Biden predicting an inevitable “epiphany” ushering in an era of respectful collaboration — are embarrassing fools.

 

The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead

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I covered my broader admiration for Colson Whitehead’s writing earlier this week, so there might be a little redundancy to this paragraph. But I’ve carved out a corner of this weekly feature for reflections on books I’ve recently completed, hence a few words for Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. His most significant act of invention in the novel is positing the Underground Railroad — the support system of subterfuge that helped slaves escape the cruelty of their immoral bondage in the decades before the U.S. Civil War — was truly equipped with locomotive transportation puffing steam beneath the surface of the Earth. This fanciful fact isn’t presented with whimsy nor overt marveling. It simply is, which is perhaps the boldest approach possible. The plainspokenness is shared by Whitehead’s depiction of the cruelty of slavery, both in the base physical brutality and — of more enduring pertinence — the the ritualized dehumanization of a large group of human beings in the name of preserving corrosive power. The book makes for a tough read, but its importance, value, and impact are practically inarguable.

My Writers — Colson Whitehead

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I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I became completely enamored with Colson Whitehead’s writing, but I’m fairly certain it happened in New Orleans. I was there for a relief trip in 2006, less than one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. For whatever reason, I decided Whitehead’s 2001 novel, John Henry Days, was the right book to bring along for those moments when I needed a diversion. There’s an element of satire to the novel, but it’s hardly light, frothy fare of the sort I probably could have used after a day of sorting through sun-baked wreckage. Like most of Whitehead’s work, it uses crafty invention and wry observation to scratch at larger, more daunting social ills, the sort that permanently infect the soul of the U.S. Although I couldn’t put my figure on the passage that prompted it, I hold a strong memory of sitting outside the camp where the volunteers stayed, getting in a few pages as a respite before dinner, and reading the same paragraph repeatedly, dumbstruck by the easy profundity of Whitehead’s writing.

I’ve skittered around Whitehead’s bibliography ever since, fascinated by his ability to take fanciful notions — a quasi-mystical approach to elevator inspections in The Intuitionist, make the Underground Railroad literal in the book of that title — and making them as grounded as tree roots. The boldest conceits of Whitehead’s fiction are a tool to get at deeper, tougher truths. It isn’t the analogous connections of science fiction so much as an act of shoving established reality just a little to the side of its well-worn groove, which serves to make the complications in the broad American story — particularly around race — all the starker and more unsettling. Whitehead’s narrative sleight of hand is a means to confront the reader with a suck punch forcefulness that a plain recitation of details is no longer likely to accomplish.

Despite my celebration of Whitehead’s adventuresome tweaks of the historic record and agreed-upon components of the shared culture, his language rarely indulges in the kind of flourishes that can make novels needlessly dense. There’s a crispness to his prose that recalls classic American novelists. The comparison I find myself making when reading one of Whitehead’s books is with Stephen King, whose association with genre storytelling obscures his mastery in narrative pacing and quick establishment of character. As it turns out, Whitehead identifies King as an influence, the creator that long ago stirred an aspiration to engage in the same profession. So invoking King is maybe not so bad.

I would also like to note that in The Intuitionist, his debut novel, Whitehead named a reporter character Ben Urich. I understand the in-joke signaling he was up to there, and I like that, too.

Outside Reading — When She Squeezed Me Tight She Nearly Broke My Spine edition

Banned: The song deemed ‘too dangerous’ for the BBC by Stephen Dowling

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In a marvelous act of research and wry summary, Stephen Dowling provides the details on around a dozen different songs that have received official bans from the BBC over the decades. It’s the reasoning offered by the upstanding broadcasters that usually amuses the most. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the British striking a song from playlists over concerns that it is overly jaunty. And then there are the instances of the sensitivity emerging from baffling motivations. There are plenty of reasons that “Lola,” the — it must be noted — agreeably jaunty hit from the Kinks might have raised eyebrows upon its release in 1970. The inclusion of a globally known product’s official brand name would seem to the least daunting of its incursions on a society still buttoned up all the way up to the stiff upper lip. And yet a quick edit to a more generic mention of “cherry cola” made the tale of Lola wholly safe for the impressionable masses.

 

LOVE, DEATH, AND BEGGING FOR CELEBRITIES TO KILL YOU by Jia Tolentino

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Look, I’m going to be wholeheartedly in support of any article with the sentence “Earlier this month, I got on the phone with Mistress Velvet, a dominatrix in Chicago with a day job in social work, to ask her what she made of all this.” Jia Tolentino offers further proof that she’s an astute and ingenious analyst of the peculiarities of modern times with this quick piece stemming from the social media trend of expressing affection for celebrities by opening longing for sadomasochistic punishment at their hands. A subject fit for easy mockery is instead taken seriously by Tolentino, including, in a very New Yorker touch, identifying historical precedent for expressing ardor as physical ordeal in the fourteenth century poetry of Plutarch and the words of no less than William Shakespeare. Without going overboard in assigning gravity to the situation, Tolentino allows for the ways the language is potentially a reflection of wider anxiety among the populace, especially the generation that is just beginning to earnestly survey the rat’s nest of problems that have been left for them to deal with. From an odd prompt, real insight is achieved.

 

The Highest Glass Ceiling (2016) by Ellen Fitzpatrick

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This nonfiction work provides truncated biographies of the three women who had the most significant runs for the U.S. presidency pre-Hillary. Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, and Shirley Chisholm each get roughly a third of the book, with special attention paid to the ultimately unsuccessful national campaigns. Writing with the expected clarity and dispassion of a highly experienced historian, Ellen Fitzpatrick takes care to detail with the care the ways in which all three of her subjects were accomplished individuals beyond the novelty of their presidential campaigns. The copyright date tells its own painful story here. The author and the publisher surely thought this was going to be a lovely companion piece to a historic election (and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 attempt at earning her place in the White House serves as the book’s epilogue). Instead it’s now a rueful reminder that even winning almost three million more votes than her opponent isn’t enough to put a women in the nation’s top job.

Outside Reading — I Want a Little Sugar in My Cup edition

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An Oral History of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Perfect Men in Black ‘Sugar Water’ Scene by Rachel Handler

Look, it’s probably a stretch to call this article an oral history, since it’s really comprised of nothing more than two interviews — with Vincent D’Onofrio and director Barry Sonnenfeld — interwoven. And I’m not sure what weird clickbait sorcery the Vulture editors think they’re perpetrating by highlighting the single moment when D’Onofrio downs a glass of sugar water. Setting aside the framing flaws, this is fine recounting of the oddball ingenuity D’Onofrio brought to his performance in what is ostensibly just a silly sci-fi comedy. I recall Tommy Lee Jones briefly marveling at D’Onofrio’s work in some sort of HBO First Look or other behind-the-scenes promotional endeavor, acknowledging that there’s not a lot of research an actor can do to develop verisimilitude in portraying a giant space bug collapsed into the skin shorn from a human victim. I’ve thought about including this feat of acting in the Greatish Performances feature even since I launched it, but I felt capturing its wonders was beyond my capabilities. This article manages what I could not.

 

Rebecca Traister’s keynote speech at the 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner

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Rebecca Traister has already been highlighted once before in this fledgling feature, and I’m sure I’ll cycle back to her again and again. In my estimation, few writers, thinkers, and communicators are capturing the mood of this fraught moment better than her. Rather than an essay this time, I’m linking to a transcript of a speech she gave in a keynote address at the annual event that includes the awarding of the MOLLY Prize, named for Molly Ivins and honoring excellence in journalism. (This year’s winner is Hannah Dreier, who also earned a Pulitzer for her reporting on MS-13.) A major part of Traister’s current advocacy is taking today’s intense commitment to fighting the regressive-policy-preserving cads in the power structure and showing how it echoes other points in history when the citizenry stood up for themselves. In this speech, Traister shares the story of Elizabeth Freeman, who was given the name Mum Bett when she was born a slave in middle of the eighteenth century. Freeman successfully sued for her freedom in a case that is widely credited with leading to the abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts. She should be featured prominently in the history books, and every pedestal on which a Confederate soldier’s bronzed figure resides would be better served with a commemoration of Freeman and others like her. These stories are hidden for a reason, and making them prominent is a valuable tool in moving us forward as a society. So I’ll do my small, small part and place Freeman’s picture here, to accompany the link to Traister’s speech. When I read Traister’s words, I’m reminded of how vital it is to keep teaching, and to keep learning.

 

Never a victory so Twisted by Scott Gordon

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One of the true pleasures in moving back to the city of my birth is becoming reacquainted with a uniquely rambunctious community culture. It’s been particularly helpful to discover the handful of newer media outlets that operate with a whip-smart hardihood in alignment with the broader municipal personality. And there’s no finer chronicler of the telling absurdities of Madison, Wisconsin than Tone Madison. (Full disclosure: Some of my awkwardly-assembled sentences have occasionally appeared in that digital space.) This week, the site’s fearless leader, Scott Gordon, braved an upgraded Taco Bell on State Street, in the bustling heart of the city’s downtown. So why cover a chintzy fast food outlet debuting a limited, highly regulated menu of alcoholic offerings in a desperate attempt to extract traveling money from the pockets of college kids? The emergence of a Taco Bell where, in theory, drunkenness can be achieved is emblematic of a sea change in the city, the ballot box deposing of a seeming mayor-for-life whose foundational student radical spirit slowly atrophied into curmudgeonly opposition to practically all new liquor licenses, in addition to more problematic erosions of his progressive principles. Gordon burrito-wraps all of that lingering political drama into the article, while effectively conveying the experience of day drinking in a nearly empty Taco Bell on what’s theoretically a gala day celebrating the victory of corporate persistence. The details in the piece are so well-chosen that I find myself hoping Gordon strays from his usual beat and finds a way to cover the opening of the Taco Bell-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs.

 

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth

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Now that I’ve set aside Saturdays to celebrate the writing of other people, I think this is where I’m going to comment on — and therefore keep track of — the books I’ve read. (So rest in peace, Great Moments in Literature. You served me well.) This Philip Roth novel was published twelve full years before the 2016 presidential election, and yet it perfectly — and I mean perfectly — captures the toxic nationalism, bigotry, xenophobia, and id-driven selfishness always simmering in the national character that has delivered us to this dreadful moment in time. Focusing on the experience of one New Jersey family in an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” movement put the famed aviator and Nazi sympathizer in the White House, ending Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure after two terms. Roth expertly shows the way wide social and political issue reverberate down into personal lives, and he meticulously tracks the slow progression of citizen-stifling policies until democracy is being fully papered over with totalitarianism. It is such a precise allegorical reflection of the current moment (except that the fictionalized Lindbergh is actually skilled in guising his ill intentions and ugly prejudices) that the copyright date on the book seems like a typo.

Outside Reading — Ever So Curious edition

The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George by Rivka Galchen

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I’m always going to susceptible to a smart story involving Curious George, and this piece is smarter than most. For The New Yorker, Rivka Galchen explores how well the adventures about the inquisitive little monkey have aged and digs into the shared biography of the two authors, married couple Margret and Hans Rey, in an effort to consider how their experience as refugees shaped the storytelling. Galchen makes interesting connections that further illuminate the deep resonance to be found in the Curious George books. In particular, the specific details Galchen excavates from the various books are always well chosen and amusing. There’s a loving admiration of even the most daffy components of the books, those authored by Rey and a few other choice examples. What I now need — and I do mean need — is for Galchen to expand the thesis to deliver a deep reading of Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant.

 

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How to Draw a Horse by Emma Hunsinger

Also from The New Yorker, Emma Hunsinger is given a sizable chunk of digital real estate for an autobiographical comic about, to put it most simply, the time in her adolescence when she strained to add horses to her artistic repertoire. It is, of course, about much more than that. Hunsinger’s sharing is heartfelt and poignant. What really impresses is the way she takes full advantage of the form in which she’s working. There are single images that carry the weight of full confessional monologues and others that achieve added power through imaginative desconstruction. Basically, How To Draw a Horse succeeds so completely because it’s a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.

 

A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Now that “Outside Reading” is the thing we do ’round these here digital parts every Saturday, I suspect I’ll be typing out Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s name a lot. She’s delivered winner after winner for The New York Times in recent years, whether celebrity profiles, long-form investigative pieces, or withering take-downs of cultural nonsense. This week, she published an article that uses a semi-nostalgic, mostly curious rewatch of the late-eighties/early-nineties drama Thirtysomething. Brodesser-Akner lands on a piece that is properly amused by the decidedly of-the-moment trappings of the original series, but it also slides into melancholy — sometimes even bruising — memoir. In doing so, the article offers the reminder that for all the attempts to consider pop culture through a critical framework, it’s almost inevitable that these TV shows (and movies, and books, and albums, and, and, and) strike us as viewers in a way that deeply personal. I had my own dalliance with Thirtysomething back when it first aired. Since I was watching while in college, I’ve long thought I was seeing it as a sort of instructional manual for the looming adulthood that secretly petrified me. After reading Brodesser-Akner’s piece, I wonder if there were some other wounds that were being bandaged up. Maybe the strongest testimonial to the pleasures of the article is this: After finishing it, I immediately put in my preorder for Brodesser-Akner’s forthcoming novel.

 

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Watching Elizabeth Warren Come Alive by Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick has long been my favorite writer at Slate, and her new piece drawn from following Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail is the first that makes me believe the Senator from Massachusetts could very well succeed in her run for the U.S. Presidency. That’s not exactly the argument that Lithwick is presenting, but her clear-eyed reportage on Warren’s approach is telling. “Warren shines in her unscripted Q&As precisely because she isn’t trying to please the Unknowable American Electorate of 2020,” writes Lithwick. “She is just trying to answer whatever the questioner is asking in the moment.” I could go on at tedious length about why that simple approach is precisely what any politician needs to do in this fraught national moment, and I likely will indulge in some expounding too many times between today and November 2020. For now, I’ll refrain and let Lithwick’s article carry the weight.

Outside Reading — Sweepin’ the Clouds Away edition

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The Forgotten Tale of How Black Psychiatrists Helped Make ‘Sesame Street’ by Anne Harrington

I’m bound to be enthralled by any smart story that digs into the earliest days of Sesame Street, the PBS program of my youth that was centrally responsible for elevating Jim Henson and his cohorts from oddball talents tapped for the occasional commercial or variety show spot into beloved entertainers with a very unique act. Writing for an Undark magazine series that allows authors to share material they couldn’t quite fit into their book-length works, Anne Harrington explores the purposefulness of Sesame Street‘s message of diverse inclusion, focusing on the contributions of a groundbreaking psychiatrist who helped program producers realize a slightly refined vision of the show. It was an early expression of the treatise “Representation matters.” Sesame Street helps — and still helps — build better citizens, and Dr. Chester Pierce is a major, under-lauded part of that social contribution.

 

An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports by Britni de la Cretaz

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As someone who regularly laments the ever-steepening decline of print media, I’m also prone to enjoy an expert recount of a bygone magazine with a distinctive mission. So I was an easy mark for Britni de La Cretaz’s deep dive into the history of womenSports, a magazine launched in part by Billie Jean King and meant to serve an audience being entirely ignored by ongoing publications such as Sports Illustrated. The article includes so many firsthand accounts by participants in the magazine’s surprisingly lengthy, highly bumpy history that de La Cretaz can almost give the work a feel of an oral history. And she manages to subtly address the persistence of the misogyny that hindered the magazine from the beginning, but the commentary never becomes too overt or didactic. Her blog post exploring a flare-up of conversation about the coverage of women’s sports that coincidentally coincided with the publication of the main article is engaging in its own right.

 

Breaking: Nobody Knows What’s Going to Happen in 2020 by Rebecca Traister

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As if the 2016 presidential election season wasn’t exhausting enough in its orchestrated drama and craven capitulating to a unqualified bigot, the next go-round is bound to be even worse, if only because it has, ludicrously, already been underway for months. Even the most reputable sources are signaling their coverage will be shaped by no learned lessons. The New York Times lands on our front steps every morning, and I’ve already grown irritated by how often front page stories are framed around addled speculation and depictions of supposed interpersonal conflict within the Democratic party that affords the hard work of government service — and seeking public office — with all the import of high school heartbreak. Treating elections like sporting events in news coverage is poisoning the republic. In her usual inimitable fashion, Rebecca Traister breaks down the problem with clear eyes and firm conviction, arguing for the value in backing away from the need to predict, as well as the perhaps more fervent need for those of us roiled by the current political cataclysm to seek reassurance in forecasting that assuages fears about how the coming years might proceed into yet darker, more toxic territory. In terms of the 2020 vote, Traister insists we should forget about nebulous, fundamentally unprovable concepts like electability and seek out the political figures who are actually prepared to provide concrete answers. It’s sound advice, and I hope a broad swath of the electorate takes it. I have my doubts, though.