EDITORS' NOTE: This week, Alex Belth was kind enough to handle the Sunday Long Read responsibilities and put his own spin on the bottom-of-the-letter goodies. Alex has been praised as a “New York treasure” by the Village Voice for his work at Bronx Banter, a blog about living in the city and rooting for the Yankees. He warmed up for a life of cultural exploration by working in the film business for Woody Allen, Ken Burns, and the Coen brothers. Belth is the author of Stepping Up, a biography of Curt Flood, The Dudes Abide, a Kindle Single about the making of The Big Lebowski, and the editor of The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordanand Yankee Stadium Memories. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Variety, Esquire, and Deadspin, and his story on iconoclastic sportswriter George Kimball was included in The Best American Sports Writing 2012. Belth's work as a archivist began with the Stacks, a site devoted to curating and reprinting classic sports writing. It was expanded to a weekly column for The Daily Beast, concentrating on stories about the culture and the arts, all of which brought him to Esquire Classic, the magazine’s digital archive, which he edits and curates with unbridled enthusiasm.
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OK, now on to Alex...
My parents met in the Green Room of a television station in Addis Ababa in the middle of October, 1966. On this they agreed. But if you were to ask why it all went down the way it did, it would depend on who was doing the telling.
My mother was a 22-year old Belgian travelling with five close friends in a couple of war-surplus trucks from Brussels to Kenya. It was the first time she had been back in Africa since her family fled the Belgian Congo six years earlier. My father, then 29, was a New Yorker, an associate producer working on an ABC television documentary titled The Africa Project. The suave man-of-the-world and the young voyageur were both scheduled to be interviewed by Ethiopia’s new State Television Service curious about the two groups of out-of-towners. Mom was selected because in her group she spoke the best English, and Dad because he was a guy always happy to offer an opinion.
In a letter to his sister, Dad wrote, “I took one look at Patty, and said something to the effect that her beauty lifted my spirits, that I was glad to see a good looking girl for a change and would she consider marrying me in the next day or two if she had a free moment.”
After living rough driving across Europe and the Middle East, the Belgians were happy to meet a bunch of western film folk with a producer operating openhandedly on a fat expense account. My father adopted an avuncular role with them, offering advice about their project and travel plans. He also saw my mother as someone who would fit nicely on his arm. He had met his leading-lady; she had found someone to buy her dinner.
Not long after his crew departed for Johannesburg, he began sending her letters, envisioning what might be between them. Weeks passed, his fantasies intensified, he kept writing. When she returned to Belgium—50 years ago this month—more than a dozen letters were waiting, chronologically postmarked from Cairo, Johannesburg, and New York. Was she ready to have an apartment in Manhattan and a house in Hollywood? “Baby, we’ve got the whole world open to us,” he wrote, “There ain’t nothing we can’t do, and there is no place we can’t go.” In the last letter were two plane tickets, one to New York, and the other for an open return flight to Belgium.
She thought, What the Hell? She was up for adventure, and after spending a few months in New York with Dad in the spring of ‘67, they were engaged and that fall, got married. Their romance—and particularly how they first met—was the dominant family myth of my childhood and its power long outlived the marriage.
Dad died ten years ago tomorrow. When my brother and sister and I went through his things we found carbons of the letters. The Africa trip was still very much alive for him (Mom saved her copies as well). Read today, what’s remarkable about them is the sense of time involved. Letters took weeks sometimes to be delivered if they were delivered at all. In the meantime, there was no other communication, phone calls being prohibitively expensive. A lot of Dad’s letters are filled with the angst of anticipation—Did you get my last letter? I haven’t heard back, am so anxious to know what you thought of my previous letter, etc.
This all came rushing back to me as I read the ample correspondence found in the Library of America’s elegant new anthology, Jane Bowles: Collected Writing. It is almost unfathomable to imagine the kind of waiting that was a regular part of life not too long ago. Going to the mailbox every day, hoping for a letter to arrive, only to be disappointed and wait for tomorrow to come. How did we live? And what stories did we tell ourselves in the meantime?
I curate magazine writing for Esquire Classic (and previously for The Stacks and The Daily Beast), so I think about time a lot. Reading dozens of stories this week felt like binge-watching a TV show—there is something unnatural about it. Space and time are compressed. I didn’t ruminate over any single story because I was so concerned with reading as many as possible. It was a humbling and overwhelming task and I agonized over what to include and regret having to cut so many fine pieces. (Much of what I didn’t include can be found at the essential sites, Longreads and Longform.) That said, here is what really wowed me this week.
A deep dive into Japan’s fascination with African-American culture, specifically, the blues. Michael Pronko, an American who has lived and taught in Japan for the last 15 years, tells Petrusich, “When I play blues to students, I tell them to not listen to the words, but to listen to the feeling of it—to the gut-punch. Do that first, then we’ll get into the words. I think that kind of direct, emotional, uninhibited expression is really appealing to the Japanese, because things are so restrained in Japanese society.”
Until very recently, and to all outward appearances, Jared Kushner was just another socially striving young businessman with inoffensively Bloombergian political values. How you like me now? Very much a New York magazine piece but in all the right ways—juicy, well reported, chilling.
Raheel Siddiqui was a young Muslim who dreamed of becoming a Marine. At twenty, he started basic training at Parris Island, where barking drill sergeants transform callow recruits into elite killing machines. Less than two weeks after he arrived, Siddiqui suffered a mysterious and fatal fall. The Marine Corps says he committed suicide, but some think more sinister forces led to his death.
Modern slot machines develop an unbreakable hold on many players—some of whom wind up losing their jobs, their families, and even, as in the case of Scott Stevens, their lives. Never mind the plain-sounding title, this is a terrific piece of writing and reporting.
Pauline Kael called it “the greatest newspaper comedy of them all…overlapping dialogue carries the movie along at breakneck speed; word gags take the place of the sight gags of silent comedy.” In many ways, recent shows, like Veep, feel very much in the grand tradition of this rapid-fire screwball comedy. I loved both Nehme’s and Sragrow’s essays.
Richard Diebenkorn was to California what de Kooning and Kline were to New York, but to call Diebenkorn a “Californian painter” or even an “Abstract Expressionist” wouldn’t do him justice. He was a great American painter who painted both representational and abstract pictures, and both reflected his environment, which most often happened to be California (first the Bay Area, later, most famously, the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica). Diebenkorn was a sensualist and a dedicated draftsman. He was enormously influenced by Henri Matisse, which makes their current show at the Baltimore Museum of Art so inspired. Although they are best known for their use of color, both men could draw their asses off. The show is only in Baltimore for a few more weeks but then travels to San Francisco, so catch it if you can.
Even more exciting for Diebenkorn fans is his catalogue raisonné, recently published by Yale University Press and reviewed at The Daily Beast by Malcolm Jones, author of the exquisite memoir, Little Boy Blues.
A veteran observer of Vladimir Putin’s special brand of public relations prepares us for what we have in store during a Trump presidency: “Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him.” This piece would be funnier if it weren’t so frightening.
How Andy Cohen turned “The Real Housewives” into an empire, transformed Bravo into a reality TV factory of shameless corn, and became more famous than any of his so-called stars:
“Do we think of him as the “Housewives” guy — or as a former Bravo head of development who has a thriving production company? Or a guy with his own channel on Sirius XM Radio that features shows with Sandra Bernhard and Dan Rather? Or the author of three best-selling books, or the host of a nightly talk show, the first one in late night with a working bar, no matter what James Corden says?”
Federico Fellini once said, “I feel that I am all the time making the same film.” William Faulkner went further: “As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world…I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep trying in a new way.”
Over ten years ago, Josh Wilker started writing about his life as seen through the prism of baseball cards. It led to a charming book that was very good and then you would have thought the baseball card thing would be spent. But no,Wilker keeps it fresh, like in this essay on a Willie McCovey, Ray Kroc, and original sin.
Oral histories aren't writing, they're transcribing and editing. And when they address a historical topic they excel at filling the reader's mind with the pitter-patter of anecdote that goes down like a bedtime story. Todd Purdum rounded up everybody—who isn't dead—in attendance at John F. Kennedy's inauguration for this tasty look at history. Great transcription. Great editing. And just enough connective tissue in connecting all the tales into one.
A couple weeks ago I listed my favorite podcast episodes of 2016, and in the back of my mind something was nagging about a show I knew I loved listening to but couldn’t remember. I just remembered: it’s this episode of Another Round with actor Wendell Pierce. The whole episode is great but Pierce’s ode to his native New Orleans is so insightful and makes me appreciate that city even more.
Jody Avirgan is the host of FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast and is heading up the new “30 for 30” podcast documentary series from ESPN, coming this spring.
A little late on this but Marc Maron, the crown prince of podcasters, conducted a fascinating conversation with Bruce Springsteen a few weeks back. They talk about how music was Springsteen’s ticket out of a fucked-up world—nutso dad, general surrounding culture that offered nothing. But he goes further, about how he got famous before learning that Bruce Springsteen was just an escape from understanding himself and the non-performance world around him.
"When you start out on a book, you’re hoping that when you finish you’ll be different. How different? What different? If you knew that you wouldn’t need to write the book. You can’t say. Just that you are going to be a different person. That is hope in its most amorphous, shimmery, vaporous sense, but I think it’s part of the artistic urge. To write something, to make a piece of music, you really think you are going to change the world.
You’re not a new person when you’ve finished a book. The world hasn’t changed. But it’s not bad that you were able to sit down and do it. And it’s not bad that it ends. Then you try to sit down and do it again if you get the urge, if you can stretch yourself and make the leap."
—John Edgar Wideman
THE FAN LETTER
Send your fan letters to us at editors@SundayLongRead.com and we could feature your favorite thing in a future edition!
Margalit Fox’s appreciation of Clare Hollingworth, the British reporter who broke the news of WWII, is a reminder that some of the best writing anywhere can found in the obituary section. And you don’t have to write about famous people either.
Take Heather Lende, who writes wonderful obituaries about ordinary people up in Alaska. And if you haven’t read Marilyn Johnson’s wonderful book about obituary writers, The Dead Beat, you are in for a treat. Hell, while you’re at it, pick up 52 McG’s—what a gem of a book.
It’s not easy to write about jazz. How do you make this sophisticated, sometimes inscrutable music, approachable? Well, Nat Hentoff did it beautifully. He was an enthusiast, first and foremost, but one who didn’t write from a distance. Hentoff started befriending musicians when he was still a teenager in Boston (a time that is lovingly documented in his memoir, Boston Boy). He got them to trust him and open up about their craft. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Hentoff wrote liner notes to some of the most seminal American music ever produced. Dig into Hentoff’s essays on Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane and then this 2009 Q&A with the ever-talented Marc Myers and his bitchin’ Jazz Wax site.
Oh, and just one more in case you missed it, Wax Poetics’ oral history of Tribe’s debut album was expertly done, and is especially poignant in light of the group’s recent comeback.
Before I gave my mom a copy of Summer Cooking, Elizabeth David’s 1955 classic, I scanned through it and was surprised by how basic most of the recipes were. But in her introduction Molly O’Neill explained that unlike today’s precise recipes, David assumed the reader had enough skills to figure a lot out on their own without being directed. I thought that was fascinating and was reminded of it recently when David Lebovitz wrote this post about Jacques Pepin—favorite!—and how following a recipe can lead to disaster.
Personal Vision, a beautiful monograph of Adger Cowans’ career in photography, will be published next Tuesday and is well-worth checking out. A few years ago, Cowans gave a fascinating interview to Carrie Mae Weems for BOMB’s oral history series: “What I learned from Gordon [Parks], more than anything else, was not about photography, but about lifestyle: how to deal with people, how to be cool. Gordon's big lesson was taking anger and transforming it into work. That's what really saved him, in terms of dealing with racism and all the things he had to deal with.”
From The New York Times:
"A controversial experiment with a six-hour workday in one of Sweden’s largest cities wrapped up this week with a cheerful conclusion: Shorter working hours make for happier, healthier and more productive employees."
From Tim: A six hour day would destroy
the laboring man's pride and joy.
It's sweat of the brow
that counts, anyhow;
repose is a Socialist ploy!
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.
I'LL TUMBLR FOR YA
This Isn’t Happiness has been my favorite Tumblr site for years as Peteski skillfully curates a blend of the sexiest, funniest, and coolest images around. Certainly not safe for work but good and good for ya.
I caught the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro, a movie that completes an unfinished memoir by James Baldwin, over at the ever-amazing Kottke. For years now, Jason Kottke serves us what we want, along with a generous helping of things we didn’t know we wanted but are glad to discover, like this ingenious deconstruction of silent film special effects or a super-simple recipe for mac and cheese.
The movie premiered in L.A. earlier this week and its narrator, Samuel L. Jackson, told The Daily Beast, “Everyone thinks the world changes or the world evolves, but there is a certain evolution on this planet that has not changed, especially in this culture. And James Baldwin spoke to that very truthfully. He talks about the personality of a country that doesn’t allow itself to change. And he makes that very clear and it is very clear now when we look around and see that he was right.”
Speaking of Baldwin, in the latest edition of By The Book, novelist Paul Auster tells the Times, “Until recently, I hadn’t read any Baldwin since high school (a long time ago, given that I graduated in 1965), and because the novel I was working on was mostly set in the ’50s and ’60s, I dutifully plunged in to have another look. Duty quickly turned into pleasure, awe, and admiration. Baldwin is a remarkable writer on both fronts, fiction and nonfiction, and I would rank him among America’s 20th-century greats. Not just for his boldness and courage, not just for his enormous emotional range (from boiling anger to the most exquisite tenderness), but for the quality of the writing itself, the chiseled grace of his sentences.”
THE LAST LAUGH
As the Trump presidency begins, our sense of parody and satire have been turned inside out. One thing is for sure, we need as many laughs as we can get. That in mind, dig into this lineup of memorable profiles on some of our funniest comics:
The beat of the week is this stick-to-your-ribs soul classic by Archie Whitewater. And, real quick, if you missed Soundbreaking, queue it up, you'll love it. Then dig into Kirby Fergueson’s brilliant Everything is a Remix series, further proof that sometimes the Internet is freakin’ awesome.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Lea Goldman, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Peter Kafka, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Lizzie O'Leary, Anne Helen Petersen, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham
You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: SundayLongRead.com. Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.