Lessons from My Mother

James Wood, writing for The New Yorker:

In the hospital room, grief conspired with natural curiosity: so this is how a body near death functions; this is how most of us will go. . . . Six or seven seconds passed between deep breaths; each was likely to be the last, and the renewal of breath, when it came, seemed almost like a strange, teasing physiological game—no, not yet, not quite. In the days before she died, a sentence from “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” kept coming to my mind. Peter Ivanovich is looking at Ivan Ilyich’s corpse: “The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.” Those words sustained me. A long life, a fulfilling career as a schoolteacher, a merciful end (relatively speaking), three children and a devoted husband: what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.

This was the first non-Trump and/or politics piece I’ve read since August that I felt compelled to post here. Beautiful writing and an honorable story, I was moved to tears as I read it, sitting next to my daughter as she watched The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s one of the great cruelties of art—that so often the people who inspire the most moving tributes aren’t around to witness them, and even more so, that their absence is what inspired the creation.


The Devil and Father Amorth: Witnessing “the Vatican Exorcist” at Work

William Friedkin (yes, the director of ‘The Exorcist’) , writing for Vanity Fair:

Rosa had no apparent medical symptoms. It was Father Amorth’s belief that her affliction stemmed from a curse brought against her by her brother’s girlfriend, said to be a witch. The brother and his girlfriend were members of a powerful demonic cult, Father Amorth believed.

I sat two feet away from Rosa as her torment became visible. Her family stood against a wall to my right. Father Amorth invited everyone to join him in saying the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. Then he invoked Saint Joseph, Padre Pio, Father Amantini, and the Blessed Virgin, asking for their protection.

Rosa’s head began to nod involuntarily. Her eyes rolled back, and she fell into a deep trance. Father Amorth spoke in Latin in a loud, clear voice, using the Roman ritual of Paul V, from 1614. He asked the Lord to set her free from demonic infestation. “EXORCIZO DEO IMMUNDISSIMUS SPIRITUS.” (I exorcize, O God, this unclean spirit.)

Rosa’s body began to throb, and she cried out, before falling back into a trance. Father Amorth placed his right hand over her heart. “INFER TIBI LIBERA.” (Set yourself free.)

She lost consciousness. “TIME SATANA INIMICI FIDEM.” (Be afraid of Satan and the enemies of faith.)

Without warning, Rosa began to thrash violently. The five male helpers had all they could do to hold her down. A foam formed at her lips.

I’m not totally sure why this didn’t become one of those articles that everyone passes around for a couple of days on the internet, but it’s crazy interesting and well read and we could all use a distraction right now and I mean, c’mon—it’s William friggen Friedkin writing about actual exorcisms!


Afterlives: My Mother’s Breast Cancer, and My Own

Kate Bolick, writing for The New Yorker:

When I was in college, I asked my mother if she believed in an afterlife, and she said no. This didn’t surprise me—she’d finished Catholic school an atheist—but it bothered me. I reasoned with her: “None of us can say for certain there’s no life after death because we’re still alive,” and, “What if there is an afterlife and, by refusing to believe in it, you lose your right to send signs from beyond the grave?” and, “How about this: let’s just agree to agree that there is an afterlife, and if there is, when one of us dies, we can send signs, and if there isn’t that’s that. But at least we’ll have the option.” She laughed and said no, thank you.

A year later, after her cancer had reëmerged and killed her more swiftly than we’d ever thought possible, I thought of this conversation often, and was annoyed. Thanks for leaving me alone in this cold, echoing void, Mom. Would it have hurt her to humor me? To at least be on the lookout for signs from beyond would have been a comfort. I envied people who deluded themselves by visiting mediums or psychics, and I bridled at those who said my mother was “watching over” me. Maybe other mothers did such a thing, but not mine.

I promise you that this piece isn't nearly as negative as the above excerpt makes it seem. I just didn't want to spoil anything.


Dominick Dunne’s Complete O.J. Simpson Trial Coverage

Dominick Dunne, writing for Vanity Fair:

At nine o’clock we walk into the courtroom and take our places in our assigned seats, and then the door to the holding room opens and in comes O. J. Simpson himself, usually surrounded by Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and Carl Douglas. We all stare at O.J. to see what kind of mood he’s in or to which lawyer he’s talking, and we watch him say good morning to members of his family. When Judge Lance Ito comes in, we do not rise, but we do rise on the bailiff’s order to do so as the jury enters. Then the trial begins again, and all day long we watch it, except for our lunch break, when we talk about it, saying things such as “Did you notice if O.J. looked when they showed the picture of Nicole lying in the blood?” The other night, after watching a segment of Hard Copy devoted to O.J. and a drug dealer, I went to a friend’s house for dinner. I had hardly gotten inside the front door when I was confronted by people who wanted to know what had happened in court that day. I had hoped for a little respite from the topic. I wanted to talk about something else for a change, and volunteered that Ethan Hawke was in the room across the hall from me at the Chateau Marmont, and that Keanu Reeves was in the room next to me, and that I had just seen Johnny Depp being interviewed in the lobby. But nobody cared. Polite nods were the most my movie-star name-dropping got. They all wanted to talk about nothing but O. J. Simpson.

If, like me (and many others), you've fallen hard for FX's American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, you've got some reading you'll want to do. As the show has portrayed, Dominick Dunne covered the trial in-person for Vanity Fair, and the VF archives has all 9 pieces linked up and ready to go. The writing is exquisite, Bret Easton Ellis meets Ernest Hemingway. Dunne is somber, charismatic, funny, and inquisitive. It doesn't get any better than this. The excerpt above is from Part 2, 'All O.J., All the Time.'


“What I do keeps the wolf from the door.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

Marsh brought out the stimulator again. This time it was turned up to 8 before there was a reaction, and Dashi said, “Face.”

Marsh waved me over.

“See this? This little spot here. That’s the center for facial movement. We have to leave that in peace.”

Were all the expressions the human face could make supposed to originate in this little spot? All the joy, all the grief, all the light and all the darkness that filled a face in the course of a life, was it all traceable to this? The quivering lower lip before tears begin to flow, the eyes narrowing in anger, the sudden cracking up into laughter?

Marsh continued working with the two instruments. Using the sucker, he pried and pushed and shoved continuously, while he used the other tool in between, with no trace of hesitation, without stopping and, seemingly, without thinking.

He brought out the electric stimulator again. This time he pushed it toward the bottom of the hole.

“This should be the face again,” he said.

“Nothing,” Dashi said.


Dashi shook his head, and Marsh went on working.

Every adjective I know to describe something intelligent and beautiful and profound and surgically precise would fail to adequately capture how strongly this piece, by my new favorite writer, embodies all of those qualities. If you like reading about science, this is a must-read. If you like having the human condition displayed in front of your eyes, this is a must-read. Fuck all of that—this is a must-read.


Terry Gross and the Art of Opening Up

Susan Burton, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

The control room had an anticipatory backstage feel. Moments earlier, a director was gesturing like a conductor, asking an engineer to ‘‘Hit it!’’ with an audio clip. In high school, Gross wanted to be a lyricist; one of the things she loves about radio is that it has ‘‘just enough theater.’’ ‘‘Fresh Air’’ is intensely collaborative, and many staff members have been there for years, including the executive producer Danny Miller, who started as an intern in 1978.

‘‘Hello, is this Sarah? Hi, this is Terry Gross. I’ll be doing the interview with you today.’’ Gross’s voice is briskly warm, with a luster that conveys the pleasure she takes in it as an instrument. For years, she took singing lessons; she told her instructor that she wasn’t trying to become good at singing — ‘‘I just want to be inside a song, to the extent that I can be. To just have my body inside a song.’’ The goal was raptness in a form she loves.

‘‘If I ask you anything too personal — I know your book is personal, but say I cross a line, just tell me, and we’ll move on,’’ she said to Hepola. ‘‘And you can tell me anything on the record or off the record. O.K.? Swell.’’

I settled in to listen. Along a long panel of buttons in the front of the room was a white plastic square with a big red arrow under it and a label that said, TALK TO TERRY BUTTON.

The best part of this piece was realizing that I’m not the only person who has rehearsed my future Fresh Air interview.


The sicario: A Juárez Hit Man Speaks

I’ve been on a Mexican drug trafficking story binge lately—and I think Scott Carrier has too. This piece comes via this tweet:

If you're interested in The Sicario, I suggest Charles Bowden's version The sicario | Harper's Magazine http://t.co/48PwYjBxj8 via @Harpers

It’s such a fantastic piece; just crackling with energy. And if you like Bowden’s voice, check out the podcast episode that Carrier devoted to him: “An Introduction to Charles Bowden.”


John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’

Joshua Rothman, writing for The New Yorker:

Thursday is the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. To mark it, we’ve made all of “Hiroshima,” John Hersey’s landmark 1946 report on the bombing and its aftermath, available online.

Hersey began working on “Hiroshima” in 1945, when William Shawn, who was then the managing editor of The New Yorker, pointed out that, although the bombing had been widely written about, the victims’ stories still remained untold. After going to Japan and interviewing survivors, Hersey decided to show the bombing through six pairs of eyes. Originally, “Hiroshima” was planned as a four-part series. In the end, however, it was all published in a single issue, in August of 1946. There was nothing unusual about the cover, which showed ordinary people enjoying summertime. Inside, however, there was only “Hiroshima”—no Talk of the Town, no cartoons, no reviews. The piece’s impact was immediate. Parts of it were excerpted in newspapers around the world, and it was read, in its entirety, on the radio.

Today, “Hiroshima” is undiminished in its intensity. 

A novella-length article (I’ve seen people writing that it’s around 30K words) that reads much, much quicker, as all good journalism does. It’s an incredible document, obviously an astounding story, and, in my opinion, a must-read for any student of politics or history.

My tip—write down the six individuals' names and occupations (which Hersey explains in the first paragraph) so that you can go back and reference them the first couple of times he switches perspectives. And as is the norm with this piece, here’s the first paragraph:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

My Saga, Part 2: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Passage Through America

Karl Ove Knausgaard, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

On the other side of Duluth, the road continued through the wooded Minnesota landscape, the blazing sunlight filtering through the treetops creating ceaseless, shadowy patterns on the snow-covered asphalt. I had told Mark we would arrive around 5 p.m., but it soon became obvious that we would never get there on time. I tried texting him, but the message didn’t go through, probably because there was no money left on my phone account. Peter offered to call him, and I accepted gladly.

When he hung up, Peter said that Mark sounded like the archetypal American. I asked him what he meant. He shrugged, it was nothing specific, just the way he spoke.

I considered the strangeness of that: That everything Norwegian, all that was particular to the west coast of Norway and to the Hatløy family, had been completely obliterated in just two generations in the U.S. If it had been my grandfather Johannes who had emigrated instead of his younger brother Magnus, I could have been the one sitting there, up in North Dakota, an American waiting for my Norwegian relative who was roughly the same age as me and to my surprise had announced his arrival this very Sunday.

I told Peter. He laughed and said he had never met anyone less American than me.

Part 2, of an overall mind-bogglingly good piece, is not quite as romantic as Part 1 (he gets out of his head more and has to do some actual reporting), but it does the trick. I thought the ending needed a bit more ruminating, but I savored reading this, putting it off the way you save a good bottle of wine for an important night.


The Perils of the Personal Essay and My Podcast

Mensah Demary, writing for Human Parts on Medium:

Writers are, by our very nature, unsociable creatures. We hide ourselves in our rooms, or in our home offices, or in the corner of some crowded coffee shop, in order to do the work, conducted only in isolation and in solitude. Humans are, by our very nature, sociable creatures in that loneliness and isolation in large doses can cripple us, render us into hollow husks, and it might even kill us if the lack of communion drags on for far too long. Writing, then, is a balancing act: to isolate, but to connect as a matter of survival, hoping that the work we create matters to someone, anyone, even ourselves.

I’ve been thinking on this piece for a few days now. As I dig further into this storytelling podcast experiment, I keep asking myself something that Demary states perfectly:

The personal essay is, I suppose, the transmutation of a ho-hum life into meaningful art; it is navel-gazing solipsism at its finest.

I’ve been reading/listening-to far more nonfiction writing in the past few years than I have fiction. My response to writers like David Foster Wallace, Scott Carrier, and Charles D’Ambrosio is what finally compelled me to begin my podcast. I felt, and feel, strongly that by presenting a story that is uniquely my own in as honest a way as possible (along with some decent writing, of course), that I can allow others to a. empathize and b. have some emotion stirred-up within them.

I still feel like both of these outcomes are possible in fiction. I’m just concerned that the amount of artifice that needs to be built beforehand is untenable in our current culture. If people just don’t have the time to spend, at what point are fiction writers just wasting their time?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking it. But read Demary’s essay, for sure. And after, listen to the most recent episode of I Better Start Writing This Down. And let my own hype machine begin: Episode 4 comes out on 3/16 and a little birdie tells me that it’s my best one yet.