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


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

last thing

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 — Recoil edition

el paso

“All Three Spoke Spanish. All Three Were Americans”: A Pediatrician Describes Treating El Paso’s Shooting Victims by Charles Bethea

In the course of the past few years, I spent some time editing a trade publication that served the health care community, particularly those who work in the operating room. In part because of that, I think, I’ve paid especially close attention to the commentary offered by medical professionals as the gun violence epidemic has surged. The constant comparisons to war zone medicine after each mass shooting — in both the quantity of victims and, importantly, the severity of the wounds and the complications to the emergency treatment  — helps put in perspective for me what is truly happening in these tragedies. Charles Bethea is the credited author on this piece, published by The New Yorker, but the words mostly belong to Jorge Sainz, MD. I understand the reluctance to share actual images of physical brutality caused by these guns. Even so, a vital public understanding of the consequences is getting lost. Having physicians report their experiences might be the best substitute we have.


Opinion: Our Mass Shooting Culture Makes Me Constantly Worry When I’m In A Public Space by Geraldine DeRuiter


Writing for Buzzfeed News, Geraldine DeRuiter explores the ways in which the unchecked pervasiveness of guns have impacted the simple experience of venturing out into the world. I’ve had the exact welling anxiety she describes. Especially in the immediate aftermath of another tallying of casualties, I also find myself gauging escape routes in public places and sizing up the likelihood that one of the strangers around me is a NRA-empowered monster waiting to pounce. I am heartbroken — and furious — that children are now growing up in a version of this country in which active shooter training is a necessary part of their schooling. It didn’t used to be like this. It doesn’t have to be now. To appease a deranged few — and mostly an industry that decided forty years ago to shore up dwindling peacetime sales by mounting a warped legal offensive to alter the two-century understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment — a state of perpetual fear has been invited on an entire society. It’s sick.


A Relentless Jailhouse Lawyer Propels a Case to the Supreme Court by Adam Litpak


Even the one somewhat inspiring story I share today comes with a heaping helping of good old American injustice. Calvin Duncan was incarcerated for over two decades in Louisiana, using his time behind bars to school himself in the legal system. His learning was not only leveraged in his own behalf. He helped countless others, even serving as an information resource for actual attorneys who marveled at Duncan’s command of the law. At the core of Duncan’s work is a fight against the Southern state’s abominable practice of allowing criminal convictions with non-unanimous jury decisions, a practice that was adopted to oppress black people. The motivation is not an interpretation. As reporter Adam Litpak notes, the chair of the judiciary committee that cemented the practice into Louisiana’s state Constitution in the late eighteen-hundreds declared the motivating purpose was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done.” That the methodology is still on the books in appalling and exposes the lie of the racism apologists who are given spotlight placement in too much of the current public discourse, including the entirety of the Fox News primetime lineup. Duncan’s story should be made into an inspiration movie, sooner rather than later. The article was published by The New York Times.


Outside Reading — The Revolution Will Be Recorded edition


The Language I Learned From Cassettes by Ben Ratliff

This remembrance of the golden days when cassette tapes were invaluable strikes strikes right at a nostalgic vein that I find irresistible. Ben Ratliff deploys well-chosen details to capture the bygone time, but the real strength of the article is the consideration of the ways the format itself — and the easy, imperfect sharing of tapes —shaped his relationship with music. NPR hosts some tremendous music writing at this website, and this is one of the sharpest that’s showed up there in quite some time.


(image source)

The Joy of Hatred by Jamelle Bouie

Published by The New York Times, this made the rounds before last week, but I didn’t get to it until it showed up in the Sunday paper. Prompted by the ugliness of the recent Trump rally that created controversy that was too brief, Jamelle Bouie writes about the celebratory nature of the chanted bigotry, the way spitting callous invectives against fellow citizens is a grand night out for the people engaged in the vile behavior. Importantly, Bouie draws a comparison to the “communal racial violence” of lynchings and other vicious punishments exacted in the public square in the nation’s deeply troubled past. The action is different, but the instinct is the same: asserting invented power and superiority as a warning to any suppressed class of people that might dare to believe they also have personal value and dignity. It is astounding how many leaders are currently engaged in active attempts to destroy every good and kind part of the national character.


Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner


I’ve been trying to do a better job of supporting writers I enjoy through commerce, leading to a too-rare instance of procuring and reading a book immediately upon its release. The debut novel from current New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Anker is a wry, wounded comic marvel. The plot launches when the protagonist, a New York City doctor approaching middle age, unexpectedly has his children dropped off in the pre-dawn hours by the woman who is his ex-wife in all but the final legal signatures. Then she ghosts him, setting off the seesawing rage and anxiety stitched firmly into modern entitled masculinity. Brodesser-Akner writes with a briskness and clarity that recalls greats like John Updike and Philip Roth, but without those esteemed predecessors’ increasingly embarrassing buy-in to American male myth-making. There’s a keener eye at work here and a more empathetic sensibility, which then allows Brodesser-Akner to effectively expand the scope of her observations until the book offers a compelling consideration of the pitfalls and grace notes of marriage itself.

Outside Reading — Right Track, Wrong Track edition


BEDTIME SONGS by Kiese Laymon

Published in Oxford American, this essay by Kiese Laymon is lovely and moving in its purity. She writes evocatively about the experience of driving at night — with no particular geographic destination, just circling through town — and listening to personally meaningful music. It is poignant and quietly powerful, less about music than the feeling of listening to music when it is needed the most. As someone who has taken to a vehicle while the rest of my small town is sleeping, finding comfort in Sinéad O’Connor’s “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart” played repeatedly at top volume, I can relate.


Unlike Any Other by Nick Paumgarten

masters edit

I’m perpetually behind on print issues of The New Yorker, so as long as I keep doing this “Outside Reading” thing, I will occasionally share articles from that distinguished magazine that have at least a month’s worth of dust on them. Nick Paumgarten’s evaluation of golf’s stuffiest tournament, based largely on on-site reporting from its most recent staging, is an expert takedown of the sort of grotesque ritualized privilege that often poses unconvincingly as classiness in the U.S. The details are lined up like damning evidence, straight recounting of the experience and all the trappings of Augusta National Golf Club more than enough to make the whole endeavor come across as unbearably ridiculous. (I opt for the headline used in the magazine, but it’s worth noting that the article was published online as Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National, which is a fine encapsulation of its thesis.) Paumgarten also had the good fortune to write this article in a year notable for an unlikely win by Tiger Woods, who, within the world of professional golf, epitomizes the lack of true accountability for people in this country if they carry enough fame and wealth. His victory provides a forceful underline to the article’s depiction of outdated tradition preserved in rotting amber.


epstein raid

Why Would Anyone Defend Jeffrey Epstein? by Jessica Valenti

As Jessica Valenti points out, writing for GEN on the Medium platform, the inarguable villainy of convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein is already prompting an insidious manipulation of rhetoric, mostly in a long game to protect other powerful men who’ve routinely engaged in criminal predatory behavior. Valenti shares a particularly repugnant quote attributed to Robert Trivers, a famed evolutionary biologist funded by Epstein to provide shady, quasi-scientific justification for the rape of children, but the assault on basic decency through language finessing is more likely to be slow and stealthy. I think this tweet from The Good Place writer Megan Amram is a useful reminder about the need to push back against attempts to soften the narrative:

amram tweet


Outside Reading — Life, Liberty, Etc. edition

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.




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


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.

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


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


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

taco bell

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


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


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.


hunsinger horse

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


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.



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.