In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
An unexpected side effect of Trump’s run is the amount of great writing that’s come out about him. That’s sort of like pointing out a pretty butterfly to someone being buried by a swarm of fire ants, but still. Here’s a man who’s a muse because of his outsize prickishness, inspiring some truly great essays, interviews, and soul-searching from some of America’s best writers.
Two articles from The New Yorker are worth reading: Jane Mayer’s profile with Tony Schwartz—who ghost wrote Trump’s The Art Of The Deal—and George Saunders’ “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” The former contains an abundance of the particular kind of schadenfreude that comes with learning of the hellish experience it is to work with Trump. Schwartz paints a nightmarish picture, the hilarity of his experience working with a shithead narcissist only tempered by the fact that the man is the Republican nominee for president. Mayer and Schwartz take us on a journey to how the respected journalist ended up penning The Art Of The Deal (with a second child on the way, “he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high”), what ghost writing for Trump entailed (“it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes”), and the dread and shame that come with having helped him gain the popularity that would eventually lead him to believing himself fit for presidency. It’s a fascinating, incredibly distressing read into who Trump is. What frightens me most is Schwartz’s line about Trump’s reading habits: “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”
Just as fascinating as reading about Trump first-hand is reading about his supporters from the inimitable voice of George Saunders. The first segment of his New Yorker piece is dedicated to unravelling the man himself, with biting but accurate depictions of who he is, what is deemed authentic at Trump rallies, and how the crowd responds to the bizarre microclimate that exists only when a large group of Trump supporters share space with each other. “He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start groveling about it, and yet he’s sorry—but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, okay, but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.”
For each harrowingly hilarious depiction of Trump there are several more earnest portraits drawn of his supporters: “Their cheers go ragged and hoarse, chanting erupts, a look of religious zeal may flash across the face of some non-chanter, who is finally getting, in response to a question long nursed in private, exactly the answer he’s been craving.” Saunders takes the time to speak with supporters, too, attempting to understand the twisted logic that led them to this place.
I am particularly susceptible to the kind of literary hype surrounding Lucia Berlin: a rediscovered fiction writer whom Lydia Davis champions, a woman with a life full of incident and eccentrics. Last year Berlin’s selected stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women, became a New York Times bestseller; she was compared to Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, and William Carlos Williams (I’d add Shirley Jackson). I admit to having gotten caught up but didn’t buy her collection until the paperback edition was released earlier this month.
Berlin’s biography certainly adds to her mystique. Her father was in the mining industry, and Berlin, who was born in Alaska, spent a glamorous youth among Chilean high society. Her adult years were marked by divorces, alcoholism, and working an assortment of jobs to support her four sons. Her stories, many of which are autobiographical (“Close enough for horseshoes,” one of her sons said, mirroring the colloquial language of Berlin’s characters), take place in rehab facilities, laundromats, and emergency rooms. While Berlin published throughout her life (she died in 2004), her writing did not previously receive such attention.
None of this praise would mean anything now if the stories weren’t as good as they are. Berlin’s language is so tight and functional as to appear unadorned, until she unleashes a description so precise and indelible that it singes, like a branding iron, onto one’s imagination: A flock of cranes alighting from a ditch sounds like “shuffling cards.” A group of cyclists turns a street corner “like a kite string.” A woman wears blue pool-cue chalk for eye shadow.
Beautiful, lighter moments feel wistful and temporary within her stories’ melancholy, Berlin frequently undercutting her nods toward sentimentality. In “Grief,” two sisters travel to Mexico after their mother dies, one of them recovering from a mastectomy, the other silently suffering from alcoholism. Trying to make her sister feel less self-conscious about her body, the latter says, “You know one thing I’ve learned? Most people don’t notice anything at all, or care, if they do.”
Berlin’s writing can also be hilarious. In the same story, two gossiping women, having observed the sisters all week, ask their husbands to promise they’ll vacation together after they die. One husband replies dryly, “‘No. You need four for bridge.’” Cleaning Women is punctuated with the gallows humor one uses to survive a hard life; in one of the funniest stories, “Tiger Bites,” a cousin tries to convince the narrator to get an abortion. Berlin was a writer unafraid to look directly at a thing, to let a story be what it needs to be, and to relate it without superfluity but with a big heart—no easy task. It’s exciting that her work is now getting so much attention; it’s more than merited.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey: The Industrialization Of Time And Space In The Nineteenth Century was a book I couldn’t put down. Schivelbusch specializes in digressive social and pathological histories of the mundane; his survey of the early decades of train travel is a collection of fascinating extended tangents, with sections devoted to everything from competing early passenger compartment layouts to the way horse-drawn coach travel affected the development of Western literature to the role that railroad disasters played in re-defining the concept of accidents and in introducing the idea of post-traumatic stress, which was known as “railway spine” before the introduction of modern warfare. (“The more efficient the technology, the more catastrophic its destruction when it collapses,” writes Schivelbusch. To that, I’d add a favorite phrase from my man Paul Virilio: “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.”)
Speaking of ships and shipwrecks: I’m a sucker for obsessive studies of historical minutiae, and lately my go-to evening reading has been the work of the late Lionel Casson, a classicist who specialized in the maritime history and technology of the ancient world. The opening sentence of Casson’s paper “The Super-Galleys Of The Hellenistic Age” (“The past decades have seen dramatic progress in the settling of the debate that has raged for centuries concerning the oarage of ancient warships”) is bait for someone like me. After reading a couple of his papers as PDFs, I sprung for Casson’s Ships And Seamanship In The Ancient World, which I gather is considered something of an authoritative text on all things nautical in antiquity. It’s a thick tome, best paged through with a pen and notebook at your side.