Outside Reading — Thank You for the Chicken edition

succession

Filthy Rich by Michelle Dean

HBO’s Succession was amusing and sharp-elbowed in its first season. For the recently concluded second season, the series engaged a creative turbo boost that rocketed it to delirious new heights. Writing for The New York Times, Michelle Dean shrewdly analyzes the base appeal of the show’s gladiatorial bouts between conniving tycoons. She also pinpoints the true brilliance of Succession as its accurate cynicism about the likelihood of real justice against the wealthy narcissists who carelessly toss around obscene amounts of money in their efforts to build and cling to power. Dean’s closes the article — and her argument — with an observation that is pure, simple perfection.

 

prince

The Beautiful One by Dan Piepenbring

As I’ve acknowledged before, I usually come to New Yorker articles several weeks after publication, and therefore well after they’ve made the social media rounds. So forgive me if my timing seems astray. Dan Piepenbring writes about his experience as the hired co-writer of Prince’s planned memoir, recounting the unreal feelings that came with being drawn into the icon’s orbit. In Piepenbring’s rendering, Prince is beyond fascinating: clearly brilliant (he often seems to be barely keeping up with his own mercurial mind), sweetly generous, committed to maintaining authority over his own work, and deeply self-protective. As much as any other remembrance, this article makes me feel the profound loss of Prince.

 

Even After His Victim Forgave Him, the State Would Not. Until Now. by Dan Barry

eric pizer
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This news article from The New York Times details the case of Eric Pizer, a Wisconsinite military veteran who became the first person in nearly a decade to receive a pardon from the governor. Although the framing of the story emphasizes that Pizer only threw one punch in the incident that led to a felony conviction, reporter Dan Barry doesn’t diminish the consequences. The person of the receiving end of Pizer’s blow endured two surgeries to his broken nose, still has trouble breathing, and suffers from migraines. And yet Pizer emerges as a convincing example proving the dismal state of the broader U.S. justice system. He’s worked hard to make amends for a singular incident, seemingly building a respectable life out of hard work and earnest attempts to simply do better. The felony on his record stood as a practically insurmountable wall, and it stayed in place in part because the state’s actively idiotic Republican governor decided he wasn’t going to pardon anyone — not a single person — throughout his entire tenure. Presumably meant as a proof he was “tough on crime,” the practice instead ignored the reality that systems are fallible and occasionally merit. More to the point, the pardon moratorium is part of the ongoing, mostly right wing–driven fetishizing of incarceration that has created a desperately broken approach that incubates criminality rather than creates a pathway to rehabilitation. A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was maliciously mocked for her comments on the need for wholesale reform of the U.S. prison system, but, as has usually been the case, she was was completely correct. We’re doing justice wrong.

Outside Reading — Hard Court edition

supreme court

Why I Haven’t Gone Back to SCOTUS Since Kavanaugh by Dahlia Lithwick

For a long time, Dahlia Lithwick was my favorite writer on the Supreme Court beat. Reporting on the goings on at the last depot for the nation’s rickety train of judicial reckoning, Lithwick always had a smart take on the open deliberations of the justices, and she always laced her writing with a sharply insightful humor. I usually sought out Slate — Lithwick’s main employer and the outlet that published the linked essay — to find her latest story whenever there were oral arguments on a particularly big case. I noticed she’s been ceding the case-by-case responsibilities to a different writer, and now she’s offering an explanation for that choice. It’s a wrenching read, not just because it again recounts the infuriating disregard for survivors of sexual violence shown by Senate Republicans during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, but because it gets at the way the narcissistic grifters currently presiding over the executive branch have sullied almost every governmental institution that preserves the liberty-and-justice-for-all part of our fragile national society. It’s gone to take a long, long time to undo the damage.

 

Ten Years Ago, I Called Out David Letterman. This Month, We Sat Down to Talk. by Nell Scovell

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Nell Scovell wasn’t the first person to call attention to ludicrous gender disparities in the writers’ rooms of late night comedy shows, but her pointed essay largely centered on her unhappy experience as a staff writer on David Letterman’s old Late Night show, published by Vanity Fair around a decade ago, has to now be seen as a major turning point. Although the chauvinistic defenders of a testosterone-heavy status quo certainly didn’t disappear, a sincere evaluation of the problem clearly started taking place in all the right offices. As Scovell points out a somewhat unexpected follow-up piece, matters have improved enough that all of the nightly talk shows nominated for a writing Emmy this year had for more respectable ratios of women to men on staff (and at least one show addresses the outdated prominence of white males in the hosting chair in a dandy recurring segment that offers a shared star turn for a couple of the female writers). The real impetus for Scovell’s new article is an on-the-record conversation she had with Letterman, who reached out after finally reading her earlier article. Scovell is admirably fair-minded in her characterization of the meeting, and the whole essay feels like a testament to the value in speaking truth to power. And Scovell has the grace to note that it’s commendable when power finally listens.

 

Outside Reading — Finest Cuisine and Sultan Lounge edition

turks inn

The Chefs Reinventing the Midwestern Supper Club by Ligaya Mishan

Prompted by a Brooklyn restaurant that took its decor from a Northern Wisconsin supper club that shut down, this New York Times article is a wildly enjoyable survey of the colorful culinary legacy of my home state. This type of retrospective is normally a pure nostalgia trip, but Ligaya Mishan comes at the topic of bygone supper club culture with an anthropological curiosity that leads to mildly perplexed marveling at the particulars. The approach makes for a brightly entertaining read.

 

state church

William Barr’s Wild Misreading of the First Amendment by Jeffrey Toobin

It’s staggering to consider the sheer amount of infractions against the foundational norms of the U.S. government perpetrated by the very people currently charged with protecting them. I’m loathe to cry out about one of the newer transgressions not receiving enough coverage, by which the complainer only means the collective outrage isn’t properly aligned with their own. But it’s extremely difficult to keep myself from tromping down that well-worn path in the case of the current attorney general’s recent remarks built around the fantasy that Christians are a cruelly persecuted class in the current culture, including the flagrant misrepresentation of historical truths. So I’ll instead let this fine piece of aghast analysis, written by Jeffrey Toobin and published by The New Yorker, take the place of the sputtering diatribe I’d surely lapse into.

Outside Reading — The Orr Stratagem

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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

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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

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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.

Outside Reading — Don’t Drive Like My Brother edition

car talk

Car Talk’s Long Goodbye by Erik Shilling

Drawing generously from recent conversations with Ray Magliozzi, the surviving member of the sibling duo that hosted NPR’s Car Talk for many years, writer Erik Shilling does a masterful job of evoking the charms of the bygone radio call-in show (which still airs in cobbled-together “best of” episodes) and marveling at the endurance of a true oddity in the public radio sphere. Magliozzo remains an entertaining figure, recounting his unlikely fame with appropriate level or amusement and marvel. Although it’s most subtext, the piece also hits a soft sentimental spot for me in its peaceful resignation that such a broadcast sensation is unlikely to ever emerge again. Shilling’s article is published by Jalopnik.

 

The Gospel According to Marianne Williamson by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Part of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s regular technique in writing profiles is to insert herself into the process, openly grappling with whatever mixed emotions she’s feeling — or that she senses her subject is feeling. That approach is the sturdy axis upon which her famed feature on Bradley Cooper spins. And it offers the perfect shake of bitters into this cocktail about the vanity presidential campaign of self-help author Marianne Williamson, most notably in a brilliant little interlude about why it’s Brodesser-Akner whose been dispatched by The New York Times rather than one of their proper political reporters. The authorial intrusion is a questionable tic, but Brodesser-Akner makes it work better than just about anyone. If she was content for the passage to be amusing, it would still be a satisfying diversion. Instead, Brodesser-Akner makes certain the moment is also deeply telling, providing valuable insights on Williamson and her place is this monumentally bizarre political era. And deep within the article there is another moment of Brodesser-Akner stepping forward into the spotlight that has a broader impact. A novice to political journalism, she finds herself swept up in the mere practice of democracy — the citizenry attending speeches to understand how the person at the podium intends to make their lives better and determining how they will exercise the duty of their lone vote — and therefore admiring the system in a way that eludes her more jaded, just-another-day-on-the-job colleagues, always in hunt of a headline instead of understanding. To the degree that media coverage of elections is part of a our current problem (and I’d say it’s a major part of our current problem), getting more writers like Brodesser-Akner out on the trail just might be a good solution

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

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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

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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 — 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.