Tuesday, June 18, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt three)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Armed with population information for the first time, insurance companies began to get a handle on probability calculations, and soon enough a natural disaster helped ease their difficulties with religion. On the feast of All Saints in 1755, just before ten in the morning, one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded struck the city of Lisbon. When the shaking finally stopped—fully six minutes later, some records say—tens of thousands of people had died as homes and churches collapsed, and fissures up to sixteen feet wide gaped open in the earth. Not long after, the waters along the coast of Portugal drew back in a sharp gasp, exposing the bottom of the harbor. Throngs of amazed onlookers had flocked to see old shipwrecks newly revealed on the seabed when, nearly an hour later, the ocean exhaled and a tsunami washed over the city, killing thousands more. The scale of the tragedy was so vast that existing theodicies seemed inadequate, and all of Europe struggled to answer the existential questions raised by the Lisbon catastrophe.

In the course of that struggle, theologians found themselves competing with Englightenment philosophers, who seized on the earthquake to offer a rival account of the workings of the natural world. If earthquakes were not divine punishments but geological inevitabilities, then perhaps insuring oneself against death was not contrary to God’s plan but a responsible and pious way to provide for one’s family. By the end of the eighteenth century, that idea had gained legitimacy throughout Europe. Once it took hold, religious groups, initially opposed to the entire notion of life insurance, became some of its strongest advocates, in some cases even starting denominational funds to sell policies to their members.



Monday, June 17, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt two)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

It was in the middle of this debacle that the state attorney general, Thomas Knight, contacted some toxicologists at what was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute but would later become Auburn University. Knight felt that the mishandling of the Scottsboro Boys case might have been avoided had the authorities gathered and assessed the evidence scientifically. By way of a counterexample, he pointed to the scrupulous methods used in another of the era’s most notorious criminal cases: the 1935 conviction of Bruno Hauptmann for the abduction and murder of the infant son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. That latter case set a standard the state should strive for, Knight felt, and he encouraged prosecutors and law enforcement officers around Alabama to send evidence to Dr. Hubert Nixon, a professor in the agricultural laboratory, and Dr. Carl Rehling, a professor of chemistry. Within a few years, the Alabama Legislature had officially allocated funds for a special forensic laboratory. “It is not our purpose to prove guilt or innocence,” Dr. Rehling said of the lab, “but to present the facts.”



Sunday, June 16, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt one)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Enough water, like enough time, can make anything disappear. A hundred years ago, in the place presently occupied by the largest lake in Alabama, there was a region of hills and hollers and hardscrabble communities with a pretty little river running through it. The Tallapoosa River forms where a creek named McClendon meets a creek named Mud, after each of them has trickled down from the Appalachian foothills of Georgia. Until it was dammed into obedience, the Tallapoosa just kept on trickling from there, lazing downward until it met its older, livelier sibling, the Coosa River, near the town of Wetumpka, where together the two streams became the Alabama River, which continued westward and southward until it spilled into Mobile Bay, and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. For 265 miles and millions of years, the Tallapoosa carried on like that, serenely genuflecting its way to the sea.

What put an end to this was power. Man’s dominion over the earth might have been given to him in Genesis, but he began acting on it in earnest in the nineteenth century. Steam engines and steel and combustion of all kinds provided the means; manifest destiny provided the motive. Within a few decades, humankind had come to understand nature as its enemy in what the philosopher William James called, approvingly, “the moral equivalent of war.” This was especially true in the American South, where an actual war had left behind physical and financial devastation and liberated the enslaved men and women who had been the region’s economic engine. No longer legally able to subjugate other people, wealthy white southerners turned their attention to nature instead. The untamed world seemed to them at worst like a mortal danger, seething with disease and constantly threatening disaster, and at best like a terrible waste. The numberless trees could be timber, the forests could be farms, the malarial swamps could be drained and turned to solid ground, wolves and bears and other fearsome predators could be throw rugs, taxidermy, and dinner. And as for the rivers, why should they get to play while people had to work? In the words of the president of the Alabama Power Company, Thomas Martin, “Every loafing stream is loafing at the public expense.”



Friday, June 14, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt nine)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

Sharon gets to Puerto Rico on an evening plane. She knows exactly how much money she has, which means that she knows how rapidly she must move against time—which is inexorably moving against her. She steps down from the plane, with hundreds of others, and crosses the field, under the blue-black sky; and something in the way the stars hang low, something in the way the air caresses her skin, reminds her of that Birmingham she has not seen in so long.



Thursday, June 13, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt eight)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

And, when a subway car is packed—unless it’s full of people who know each other, going on a picnic, say—it is almost always silent. It’s as though everybody is just holding his breath, waiting to get out of there. Each time the train comes into a station, and some of the people push you aside, in order to get out—as happened now, for example, with the man who smelled of hot sauce and toothpaste—a great sigh seems to rise; stifled immediately by the people who get on. Now, a blond girl, carrying a bandbox, was breathing her hangover into my face. My stop came, and I got off, climbed the steps and crossed the street. I went into the service entrance and punched the clock, put my street clothes away and went out to my counter. I was a little late to the floor, but I’d clocked in on time.

The floor manager, a white boy, young, nice enough, gave me a mock scowl as I hurried to my place.



Wednesday, June 12, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt seven)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person have that feeling.

Daniel stays with us till midnight. He’s a little afraid to leave, afraid, in fact, to hit those streets, and Fonny realizes this and walks him to the subway. Daniel, who cannot abandon his mother, yet longs to be free to confront his life; is terrified at the same time of what that life may bring, is terrified of freedom; and is struggling in a trap. And Fonny, who is younger, struggles now to be older, in order to help his friend toward his deliverance. Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?

The song is old, the question unanswered.



Tuesday, June 11, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt six)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

“Let’s go this way,” he said, and we started down Sixth Avenue, toward Bleecker Street. We started down Bleecker and Fonny stared for a moment through the big window of the San Remo. There was no one in there that he knew, and the whole place looked tired and discouraged, as though wearily about to shave and get dressed for a terrible evening. The people under the weary light were veterans of indescribable wars. We kept walking. The streets were very crowded now, with youngsters, black and white, and cops. Fonny held his head a little higher and his grip tightened on my hand. There were lots of kids on the sidewalk, before the crowded coffee shop. A jukebox was playing Aretha’s “That’s Life.” It was strange. Everyone was in the streets, moving and talking, like people do everywhere, and yet none of it seemed to be friendly. There was something hard and frightening about it: the way that something which looks real, but isn’t, can send you screaming out of your mind. It was just like scenes uptown, in a way, with the older man and women sitting on the stoops; with small children running up and down the block, cars moving slowly through this maelstrom, the cop car parked on the corner, with the two cops in it, other cops swaggering slowly along the sidewalk. It was like scenes uptown, in a way, but with something left out, or something put in, I couldn’t tell: but it was a scene that frightened me. One had to make one’s way carefully here, for all these people were blind. We were jostled, and Fonny put his arm around my shoulder. We passed Minetta Tavern, crossed Minetta Lane, passed the newspaper stand on the next corner, and crossed diagonally into the park, which seemed to huddle in the shadow of the heavy new buildings of NYU and the high new apartment buildings on the east and the north. We passed the men who had been playing chess in the lamplight for generations, and people walking their dogs, and young men with bright hair and very tight pants, who looked quickly at Fonny and resignedly at me. We sat down on the stone edge of the dry fountain, facing the arch. There were lots of people around us, but I still felt this terrible lack of friendliness.



Monday, June 10, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt five)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

She knows Daddy better than I do. I think it’s because she’s felt since we were children that our Daddy maybe loved me more than he loves her. This isn’t true, and she knows that now—people love different people in different ways—but it must have seemed that way to her when we were little. I look as though I just can’t make it, she looks like can’t nothing stop her. If you look helpless, people react to you in one way and if you look strong, or just come on strong, people react to you in another way, and, since you don’t see what they see, this can be very painful. I think that’s maybe why Sis was always in front of that damn mirror all the time, when we were kids. She was saying, I don’t care. I got me. Of course, this only made her come on stronger than ever, which was the last effect she desired: but that’s the way we are and that’s how we can sometimes get so fucked up. Anyway, she’s past all that. She knows who she is, or, at least, she knows who she damn well isn’t; and since she’s no longer terrified of uprisings in those forces which she lives with and has learned how to use and subdue, she can walk straight ahead into anything; and so she can cut Daddy off when he’s talking—which I can’t do. She moved away from me a little and put my glass in my hand. “Unbow your head, sister,” she said, and raised her glass and touched mine. “Save the children,” she said, very quietly, and drained her glass.



Sunday, June 9, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt four)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

Teddy had the tambourine, and this gave the cue to the piano player—I never got to know him: a long dark, evil-looking brother, with hands made for strangling; and with these hands he attacked the keyboard like he was beating the brains out of someone he remembered. No doubt, the congregation had their memories, too, and they went to pieces. The church began to rock. And rocked me and Fonny, too, though they didn’t know it, and in a very different way. Now, we knew that nobody loved us: or, now, we knew who did. Whoever loved us was not here.



Saturday, June 8, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt three)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

The church had been a post office. I don’t know how come the building had had to be sold, or why, come to that, anybody had wanted to buy it, because it still looked like a post office, long and dark and low. They had knocked down some walls and put in some benches and put up the church signs and the church schedules; but the ceiling was that awful kind of wrinkled tin, and they had either painted it brown or they had left it unpainted. When you came in, the pulpit looked a mighty long ways off. To tell the truth, I think the people in the church were just proud that their church was so big and that they had somehow got their hands on it. Of course I was (more or less) used to Abyssinia. It was brighter, and had a balcony. I used to sit in that balcony, on Mama’s knees. Every time I think of a certain song, “Uncloudy Day,” I’m back in that balcony again, on Mama’s knees. Every time I hear “Blessed Quietness,” I think of Fonny’s church and Fonny’s mother. I don’t mean that either the song or the church was quiet. But I don’t remember ever hearing that song in our church. I’ll always associate that song with Fonny’s church because when they sang it on that Sunday morning, Fonny’s mother got happy.

Watching people get happy and fall out under the Power is always something to see, even if you see it all the time. But people didn’t often get happy in our church: we were more respectable, more civilized, than sanctified. I still find something in it very frightening: but I think this is because Fonny hated it.



Friday, June 7, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt two)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

It was the Sunday morning street. Our streets have days, and even hours. Where I was born, and where my baby will be born, you look down the street and you can almost see what’s happening in the house: like, say, Saturday, at three in the afternoon, is a very bad hour. The kids are home from school. The men are home from work. You’d think that this might be a very happy get together, but it isn’t. The kids see the men. The men see the kids. And this drives the women, who are cooking and cleaning and straightening hair and who see what men won’t see, almost crazy. You can see it in the streets, you can hear it in the way the women yell for their children. You can see it in the way they come down out of the house—in a rush, like a storm—and slap the children and drag them upstairs, you can hear it in the child, you can see it in the way the men, ignoring all this, stand together in front of a railing, sit together in the barbershop pass a bottle between them, walk to the corner to the bar, tease the girl behind the bar, fight with each other, and get very busy, later, with their vines. Saturday afternoon is like a cloud hanging over, it’s like waiting for a storm to break.

But, on Sunday mornings the clouds have lifted, the storm has done its damage and gone. No matter what the damage was, everybody’s clean now. The women have somehow managed to get it all together, to hold everything together. So, here everybody is, cleaned, scrubbed, brushed, and greased. Later, they’re going to eat ham hocks or chitterlings or fried or roasted chicken, with yams and rice and greens or cornbread or biscuits. They’re going to come home and fall out and be friendly: and some men wash their cars, on Sundays, more carefully than they wash their foreskins. Walking down the street that Sunday morning, with Fonny walking beside me like a prisoner and Mrs. Hunt on the other side of me, like a queen making great strides into the kingdom, was like walking through a fair. But now I think that it was only Fonny—who didn’t say a word—that made it seem like a fair.



Thursday, June 6, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt one)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I’ve come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. Of course, they’re not any richer than the poor, really, that’s why they’ve turned into vultures, scavengers, indecent garbage men, and I’m talking about the black cats, too, who, in so many ways, are worse. I think that, personally, I would be ashamed. But I’ve had to think about it and now I think that maybe not. I don’t know what I wouldn’t do to get Fonny out of jail. I’ve never come across any shame down here, except shame like mine, except the shame of the hardworking black ladies, who call me Daughter, and the shame of proud Puerto Ricans, who don’t understand what’s happened—no one speaks to them speaks Spanish, for example—and who are ashamed that they have loved ones in jail. But they are wrong to be ashamed. The people responsible for these jails should be ashamed.



Wednesday, June 5, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt nine)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Sherrie’s right. You can live with someone forever and not know them at all. Personally, he’s astonished to discover that the woman with whom he’s spent his life prefers Arlene to him. If, as Sherrie said, guys always turn out to be guys, maybe women turn out to be women, with their Jane Eyre and their covens.



Tuesday, June 4, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt eight)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Dazed, they slouch out of the room. Swenson thinks of a story he heard when he first came to Euston, a cautionary tale about a teaching fellow who started coming into class drunk, scheduling her student conferences for midnight at a Mexican restaurant in Winooskie. Her students were so frustrated that at last, when she passed out in class, they put a paper bag over her head on their way out of the room. This story used to comfort him. He’d think, As long as I got through class without a bag over my head, things are under control. But now, as his students file past him, he knows that if they had a large enough bag, they wouldn’t hesitate to use it.



Monday, June 3, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt seven)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Swenson feels his spirit separating from his body. Now he knows what he was dreading, but this is worse than whatever he’d feared. He feels as he does when he hurts himself, cuts his finger or stubs his toe, and in that first moment understands that the real pain is still to come, taking its own sweet time, waiting until the adrenaline goes and leaves him unprotected.



Sunday, June 2, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt six)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

He smiles at Sherrie. “If I were forced to choose one meal to eat every night for the rest of my life, it would be chicken with lemon, and scalloped potatoes with prosciutto.”

“Why would you have to make a choice like that?” Sherrie asks.

“Why would I?” Swenson says.



Saturday, June 1, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt five)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

“His misogyny!” Lauren says. “And the total absence of one positive, life-affirming line in the man’s entire oeuvre!”

Swenson can hardly stand it. He loves those beautiful poems that tell more of the truth than anyone wants to hear. Nor does it help to think that this is one of the few, the very few dinner tables in the world at which most, or any, of the guests have heard of Philip Larkin.



Friday, May 31, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt four)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Swenson thinks of Jonathan Edwards looming over the dean’s head. Why does religion make people want to put scary images on the walls? So they’ll know what they’re doing in church, what they’re putting in time to avoid. Give him the old Quaker Meeting House, nothing on the walls, nothing terribly frightening unless you were Swenson’s father, who had the scary pictures inside of him, and was encouraged by his religion to spend an hour every Sunday touring his inner chamber of horrors. One morning after Meeting, when Swenson was twelve, his father took him out for breakfast at the Malden Diner and calmly explained that he’d come to believe that everything wrong with the world was his personal fault. As he said this, Swenson’s skinny father ate three consecutive full breakfasts. It wasn’t very long after that he set himself on fire on the State House steps.



Thursday, May 30, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt three)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Swenson finds it trying to walk anywhere with student. Conversation’s tough enough when everyone stands in one place. Forward movement creates so many chances for awkward stalls and collisions, decisions about who goes first, right or left, minicrises that make one conscious of authority and position. Does the student respectfully stand aside and usher Swenson through the doorway, or does Swenson, in loco parentis, hold the door for the kid? And is everything different depending on whether the student is male or female?

You bet it’s different if the student is female. Crossing the quad with Angela, Swenson’s acutely aware that he might walk one inch too close and someone will report them for holding hands. At least the quad’s nearly empty. Another advantage of ending class early is that they’re spared the traffic jam between classes, the saying hello to everyone just in case you happen to know them. Looking up at the high windows of granite Claymore, Thackeray, Comstock Hall, he wonders who’s looking down.



Wednesday, May 29, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt two)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

The emergency room wasn’t crowded. The nurse—that is, Sherrie—walked him in to see the doctor, who was practically delirious because the patient who’d just left was Sarah Vaughn. The doctor wanted to talk about Sarah’s strep throat and not about what turned out to be Swenson’s middle-ear infection. Swenson thanked him, stood, and hit the floor. He’d woken with Sherrie’s hand on his pulse, where it’s been ever since. That’s what he used to say when he told this story, which he hardly ever does anymore since they no longer meet new people who haven’t heard it. And Sherrie used to say, “I should have known not to fall in love with a guy who was already unconscious.”



Tuesday, May 28, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt one)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Swenson argued for Claris. He’d dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgment. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn’t judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson’s pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.



Sunday, May 26, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt eight)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

He was surprised how much he liked his bedsit room. It had nothing much in it apart from a bed and a table and chair, and looked out onto a back garden whose shrubs had overgrown into trees, and where tenants had dumped curiosities – a broken trailer for pulling a boat, a trampoline with rusty springs. Foxes sauntered through at dusk, their hindquarters insolently drooping, inspecting their terrain. Alex chose carefully the books he brought from home, a few at a time, and liked waking in the room in moonlight – he never drew the curtains against the dark – to see their pale promise solid on his table. He was reading anthropology, thinking that after all this should have been his subject – with its long view, its doubt in relation to human universals, its foundation in the idea of cultural difference.



Saturday, May 25, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt seven)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

The next morning Isobel was nauseous from the drink. – I can’t bear to tell you what’s happened with my parents, she said to Blaise. They had actually sent each other this time, to make sure, the map coordinates for a Caffè Nero in the Haymarket. – I’ll never be able to convince you that up until now, my life’s been so straightforward. Almost too straightforward. I wish you’d known me in the past, just so that you’d believe me, how boring I used to be.

Blaise only smiled fondly; he had brought her as a present a leather-bound Victorian anthology of poetry – inevitably she lost it almost at once on the Tube. She asked if nothing awful ever happened to him. – I was in a helicopter last year in Pakistan, he offered helpfully. – And my ear protectors blew off in a backdraught. I was too embarrassed to say anything, you know, civil servant among all those military types. But I couldn’t hear properly afterwards for months.



Friday, May 24, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt six)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

Alex marveled at her. – You’re wilful. You invented a romantic story and you’ve stuck to it in your wilful heart. It’s an act of will.

Lydia thought about that. – But how else does anyone live?



Thursday, May 23, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt five)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

In Bratislava he had begun to remember things, standing with his mother outside their old apartment on the second floor of an austere nineteenth-century tenement – inevitably now repainted candy pink – and then outside the school he’d attended, and in a little park where once he had played on the swings. For a few uncanny minutes it was as if two epochs of their lives were superimposed and coexistent, the present transparent and the past showing through behind it. Then the superior solidity of the here and now was bound to prevail over fragile memory; a different generation of children, born into a different politics, came pouring out through the school gate, jostling and calling. Margita’s shy cousin was a radiographer and read poetry, her tiny apartment hadn’t been updated yet to the new more affluent reality, was still lit by forty-watt bulbs, decorated with sample squares of carpet nailed to the walls, faux-bronze reliefs of Bohemian castles. The family were invited up from the country one Sunday to meet the visitors, and arrived full of curiosity and welcome, brnging dishes of prepared food and their own wine from the farm, in yellow plastic bottles. They toasted the homecomers gravely, courteously. But after the first warm rush of reminiscence they didn’t have much to say to one another. Alex could just about follow their conversation in Slovak, but he knew his speech sounded alien and formal to them. He and Margita wanted to know more about tumultuous events and political change, but it was clear that the questions they asked seemed banal and outdated to their relatives. Any passion about the country seemed exhausted too, even the idea of the new Slovakia.



Wednesday, May 22, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt four)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

When tens of thousands of refugees from East Germany had begun pouring into Czechoslovakia in November 1989, Alex had brought his mother round to their flat so they could watch together the events unfolding on the television. For a few nights Margita slept in their spare bed. Zachary had telephoned from New York; Alex had stayed home from his classes in the language school and walked from room to room with the radio pressed to his ear in case he missed anything. Christine sat breastfeeding Isobel, watching the abandoned Trabants blocking the Prague streets, the tent city growing in the courtyard of the West German Embassy, the police trying to stop the men and women climbing over the embassy walls. There were mass demonstrations, the crowd jangled their key rings, Alex thought you could pick out on the television the StB men moving against them, taking photographs. In Bratislava they broadcast dissident music via television signals from Vienna. Alex and Margita and Christine couldn’t turn their eyes away from the police in their white helmets breaking up demonstrations, using tear gas, pulling the peaceful demonstrators down by the hair, kicking at them and beating them with their truncheons.

Then Havel in his leather coat was addressing the crowds in Prague, and the crowds were waltzing in slow motion and waving sparklers. Havel was embracing Dubček, recalled from his desk job working for the Forestry Service – somehow he had not been hanged or shot. A bust of Stalin was paraded with Nic Netrva Vecne written on a paper strung around his neck; the cameras loved that, Nothing Lasts Forever. Margita turns to look at Christine on the sofa, tears running down her face, making runnels in the pink powder. She said she’d thought it would last another hundred years, or four hundred. She was still handsome at sixty, with her fierce stare and thick shock of hair, home-dyed, streaked blonde; her hand was pressed to her heavy bosom in its close-fitting jazz-print dress as if she were holding in something fighting to get out, and she pulled her cardigan tight across her chest, squeezing its buttons in her fist, in tense concentration on the TV screen. She and Alex spoke together in their own language, which Christine hadn’t often heard him use. The family had always tried to speak in English, it had been the first rule Margita and Tomas adopted on arriving in the new country, to save their son. Stesk was homesickness, Margita explained to Christine, it was for sentimentalists, she’d refused to feel it on principle. But on a day like this . . .



Tuesday, May 21, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt three)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

– But what is your problem exactly? Alex said severely.

She gazed at him, eyes glittering in the candlelight. – Well, I’m not very good at being happy.



Monday, May 20, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt two)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

The two girls stood holding onto each other, Grace weeping into Isobel’s shoulder, Isobel stroking her shorn head. Hannah carried flowers down from the office, vases full with tall white foxgloves and delphiniums and hollyhocks, fat peonies. But the sight of Zachary’s body was a horror to Christine, the darkness in the nostrils, his closed face. He looked like a stuffed doll, with his stubby-fingered hand laid in rhetorical gesture across his heart, wedding ring on ostentatious display. Lydia had given the undertakers one of the lightweight wool suits he’d had made in Hong Kong – a clownish tobacco-brown check.



Sunday, May 19, 2019

the last book I ever read (Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley, excerpt one)

from Late in the Day: A Novel by Tessa Hadley:

Afterwards she said she’d known, as soon as she opened her eyes and saw his face. – You should see your face, Alex. It’s a giveaway. And of course if anyone else had died, Dad would have to come to tell me.

In the car on the way home, she kept her little rucksack on her knee and was distinctively herself: looking round her out the window, taking everything in, questioning him sensibly about what had happened. He repeated to her all the detail that was becoming mythic, about Jane Ogden’s new show, Zachary keeling over in the gallery, hitting his head on the desk. – But why, but why? Grace said, staring straight ahead through the windscreen, rocking backwards and forwards just perceptibly in a childish rhythm, hugging the rucksack that she wouldn’t put down on the back seat, or on the floor. At some point she announced that she was starving, and they stopped at a motorway service station. She ate something disgusting, with every sign of a hearty appetite – a full English breakfast; and then shortly afterwards, when they were on the motorway again, he had to pull over quickly onto the hard shoulder. She jumped out of the car and vomited into the tall grass full of daisies, which was blowing in sensuous long ripples in the wind.



Friday, May 17, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt twelve)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

They went to Chen Wei’s on Thirteenth. Arthur turned out to be their favorite waiter, a Chinese-looking man in his seventies who wore a red bow tie and spoke English with a disorienting County Cork accent very much like Joe’s aunt Rose. Joe couldn’t figure out why they wanted to introduce him, though they shook hands. Arthur was so old that every time he showed up with a plate Joe half stood to help him with it. This incensed Arthur. “Lookit,” he said to Joe,” lookit,” but he was so mad he couldn’t finish the thought. To make peace, Manny made them both sit down and went to the kitchen to get the plates himself.



Thursday, May 16, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt eleven)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

Cracker didn’t watch him. How could she? Instead she tried to think of him as merely a man who—like most of the men of the world—made their money mysteriously and elsewhere.

His fingers were dyed red from pistachios. His stomach hurt. He’d given up everything to get his family back and had forgotten that the first thing he’d given up was his family. What did she do with her days? She sat and waited for him to come home. He sat and waited to be invited.



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt ten)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

The Mostra delle Terre Italiane d’Oltremare had been designed to strike awe, like the harpoon in Ethiopia’s hand. Arch had been staring up at her when he met Joan, who had sidled up beside him and whispered, “Look on my works, you mighty, and despair.”

“Ye,” said Arch. “Ye mighty.”



Tuesday, May 14, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt nine)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

Just like that the man’s eyes were filled with tears. He caught her hand between his. “My late wife’s name was Margaret,” he said. “I won’t need a thing from you. I’ll take some photos. Then, depending on what we find, perhaps some moving pictures. I understand, you say, We don’t have spirits or we don’t want spirits or how do we get rid of spirits if we got ‘em. Customers don’t like ghosts, you might think, but they do. Look at Salem! Look at the Continental Hotel!” He nodded at the photo of the hotel elevator; he was still holding her hand. “You may find business better than it’s ever been.”

She didn’t want the man to find a ghost but she also didn’t want him to go. He was a big man, and Margaret loved big men the way some women loved big dogs. Their very presense comforted her; she thought she particularly knew how to talk to them. “Well,” she said. “We could use the business. You start looking. Find me a ghost. Make it a good one.”



Monday, May 13, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt eight)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

In 1932 Nahum Truitt went to Picardi’s Barbershop in Phillipine Square to have the beard shorn from his face. He looked at the long mirror, his reflection surrounded by all the blades of the business, which meant he was, too. He trusted Picardi to put the sharpest blade to his very neck; he trusted himself not to wrest the razor away to do something terrible, to himself or someone else. Time was he wouldn’t have trusted himself. Therefore the beard.



Sunday, May 12, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt seven)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

The men of the alleys had abandoned their lanes, their racing forms. A dozen forgotten cigarettes burnt in the tin ashtrays stamped at the bottom TRUITT’S. LuEtta bowled, a tall gal in white leather shoes, her ankles in their thin socks indecent. Her blond hair was brassy. Her form was exemplary. She looked like a deer burst through a window at a train station. She didn’t belong there, she had to go, they would never stop talking about her, they needed to show her the door, for her sake, too. If you were the last of your kind why would you stay.



Saturday, May 11, 2019

Friday, May 10, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt five)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

“Novels have ruined many a young woman,” said Bertha. “That’s a quote.”

“From what on earth?” said Leviticus, whose idea of domestic life was the family reading together, in silence, until such a time as he found something interesting he wanted to read aloud.



Thursday, May 9, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt four)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

Bertha Truitt was a mother, a loving one, but perplexed. Minna in her mother’s arms looked up. Anybody has seen it, a baby reading a face, careful as a phrenologist: that round chin means you’re my mother, that wide forehead means you’re my mother, that ear close to your head, those green eyes! What a scientist Minna was. What inventions and conclusions. She had the advantage. She had known Bertha’s literal depths, had elbowed her organs and heard the racket of her various systems. She had measured time by her mother’s diet and respiration, her exercise, and then Minna was born into the wide world and Bertha was so behind in knowledge she would never catch up.



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt three)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

They had been two childless women together. I had a baby who died, thought LuEtta, but she knew that the moment to tell Truitt had passed, if Truitt didn’t know.

There was no name for Edith but Edith.



Tuesday, May 7, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt two)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

Maybe somebody else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.



Monday, May 6, 2019

the last book I ever read (Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken, excerpt one)

from Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken:

“Ah good!” she said. “Give here.”

He did. She held them like a queen in an ancient painting, orb and scepter. She was alive. She was a bowler.



Sunday, May 5, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt fourteen)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

By the afternoon of May 17, Rosenstein had confirmed his agreement to hold a briefing for the Gang of Eight about the Russia investigation. He had also made the decision to appoint a special counsel and taken steps to do so. The FBI team had already set up the briefing, for five o’clock that day, so it was a good thing he was on board. At the Capitol, on the House side, they walked me down to the SCIF, in a basement floor. Some of the Russia team was waiting for me there. The senators and congressmen started straggling in, each with one or two aides—mostly staff directors—and then Rod showed up with a couple of his people. Now that the Gang of Eight was a crowd of two dozen in the room, I thought, the chance of this not getting back to the president was basically zero. Then Devin Nunes walked in, and the chance was less than zero.

Nunes, a congressman from California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had publicly stepped away from that committee’s Russia investigation. In April, just before the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating Nunes for speaking with the media about classified information relating to the Trump campaign and Russia, Nunes effectively recused himself—although he did not use the word “recuse.” Nunes was suspected of having surreptitiously been given intelligence by presidential aides during a nighttime rendezvous at the White House, information that he then publicized. Look who’s here, I said to Rod. Rosenstein understood. He went to talk to Nunes, pulled him aside. Came back, told me, Nunes is staying, he says he’s not recused from this, he refuses to leave.



Saturday, May 4, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt thirteen)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

Among all his odd claims, one stood out as being especially dubious. He said, as he had said during our phone conversation earlier that day, We’ve had so many FBI people calling us, sending us messages to say they’re so glad the director is gone.

Who would do that? Who in the Bureau would send a message to the White House about something of this nature? It was not beyond the realm of the possible—there had been so many leaks in the months building up to this point. But for anyone in the Bureau to make or maintain contact with people in the White House would be unambiguously inappropriate—an absolute violation of the White House contacts policy. But the president kept saying it was happening.



Friday, May 3, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt twelve)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

On Wednesday, May 10, 2017, my first day on the job as acting director, I arrived at the office early, went through the morning meetings, did my briefs, and by 10 a.m. I was sitting down with senior staff involved in the Russia investigation, many of whom had also been involved in Midyear Exam.

As the meeting began, my secretary relayed a message that the White House was calling. The president himself was on the line. This was highly unusual. Presidents do not, typically, call FBI directors. Federal policy, written by the Department of Justice, strictly restricts such contact. There should be no direct contact between the president and the FBI director, according to the White House contacts policy, except for national-security purposes. The FBI does have frequent, routine, and direct contact with the White House by way of the National Security Council and other facets of the national-security structure, but when it comes to topics that do not concern national security, the FBI is supposed to go through Justice, which then makes contact with the White House counsel’s office. And vice versa: If the president or any other senior White House official needs to get a message to the Justice Department or the FBI, that message is supposed to go through the White House counsel to the deputy attorney general before it gets to us. The reason for all this is simple. Investigations and prosecutions are delicate and complicated, and can affect the lives of many people; they need to be pursued according to fixed rules, without a hint of suspicion that someone with power wants to put a thumb on the scale. That means those on the front lines must have insulation from politics—or even the perception that political considerations many be at play. So the president calling the acting director of the FBI is, and was that day, remarkable.



Thursday, May 2, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt eleven)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

I am not aware of another president who has weighed in against ongoing criminal prosecutions in the overt, hostile, and unrelenting way that President Trump has. This is a breach of propriety and of historical norms. Presidents don’t weigh in on those things. They don’t try to tip the scales of justice for or against a particular defendant. In our system, intervention from the outside is not only considered inappropriate—it is inappropriate. It undermines the operation of a fair system of justice. It sows seeds of mistrust. President Obama was rightly castigated for a single offhand remark, when he said of the Clinton investigation that he thought there was nothing there. The political world exploded: Was he trying to telegraph something to investigators? Was he sending a coded message to the attorney general? It was not a smart thing to say, as Obama surely realized. And yet it was not even in the same universe as what President Trump does on a daily basis—casting doubt on the legitimacy of the prosecution of Paul Manafort, as he has done since June 2018, and calling the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt,” as he does all the time.

For an FBI agent, watching the president seek to interfere with the ordinary process of justice is especially galling—an affront to our constitutional system. The work of every agent at every waking moment is governed by intricate procedures whose aim is to ensure that every step taken is by the book. The process has to be fair and rigorous from start to finish—for the sake of subjects and for the sake of justice. It is a high-minded regime. The Bureau suffers lapses, of course, as any institution does, but the standards are taken very seriously.



Wednesday, May 1, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt ten)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

On March 17, the FBI press office got a call from a reporter at Circa News, which is owned by the right-wing media powerhouse Sinclair Broadcast Group. The reporter said that sources had told her that I had announced in staff meetings that I hated the president. Said I was out to get Michael Flynn. Said that when Flynn got fired, I slapped high fives with everyone in the room. The reporter made my staff meeting sound like the towel-snapping scene in Top Gun.

There was no truth to any of this and we flatly denied it. In any normal, reasonable world, that would be the end of it. But we’re not in that world. We lost that world at some point. Instead, our denial touched off a new standard cycle of story development. The FBI press office would receive inquiries about fictional scenarios from right-wing news outlets we would shoot them down; the news outlets were unable to go forward. Then the story would appear on some fringe, alt-right website, without a byline. Once it was picked up by the blogosphere and on social media, an outlet such as Sinclair would have cover to repeat it, which would enable Fox News to get on board, and then Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham would talk about it for weeks. This is a practiced, intentional strategy of news circulation. The stories may be fictional and the information false, but the consequences of this strategy are real.



Tuesday, April 30, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt nine)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

The two people we sent to see Flynn were accomplished, seasoned agents. After the interview, they came back to my office and described it to a small group of us. They said that Flynn had a very good recollection of events, which he related chronologically and lucidly. They did not feel he showed any outward behavioral signs of deception. He did not appear to be nervous or sweating. Not looking side to side. Displayed none of the mannerisms commonly associated with dissembling or lying. They said he related his comments in what appeared to be a very credible fashion.

However, what he said was in absolute, direct conflict with the information that we had.



Monday, April 29, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt eight)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

And also because people on the Hill were consumed by other distractions, such as Benghazi. Yes, still. Benghazi. Over a period of four years there were eight separate full-scale congressional investigations of the attack. The last one was conducted by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, chaired by Representative Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina. That committee’s appointment and hearings made big news for a long time; the next month, when the FBI collaborated with Defense on the capture of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a ringleader of the Benghazi attack, the news seemed to come and go in a week. (In 2018, Khatallah was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison for his role in the attack.) The first Benghazi investigation, by the House Intelligence Committee, was just ending its second year of work when Jim Comey was sworn in as the new FBI director. That first committee’s report found no evidence of a cover-up, no evidence of wrongdoing by the president or the secretary of state, and no evidence that the Obama administration’s conflicting statements about the cause of the attack had been intentional. The findings of the next seven investigations of Benghazi revealed little more. I continued to be called to testify and brief Congress on Benghazi throughout those four long years. There were weeks when ISIS was posting videos to YouTube of Americans being beheaded, and I was being called to the Hill to testify about Benghazi yet again.

Americans have freer access to more information than at any other time in the history of our country. What happened when we were let loose on that landscape of possibility? People raised their voices, louder all the time, and the boundaries of the landscape we had known wore down as volumes rose. The country started seeming like a village in a folktale under a spell, where the more the people see, the less they know.



Sunday, April 28, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt seven)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

Based on these signals, and on my knowledge that senior staff from other agencies would be in the briefing, I decided that I would delegate the job. The briefers returned to the Hoover building when the meeting was over, and one of them came to my office to tell me how it went. This is standard practice. Briefings to any president are assiduously prepared, with oversight from the director as needed, and if the director is not present, the senior official in attendance comes back to the director to report. This is because, in normal circumstances, the president would provide direction—assign us a task, request more information, or ask questions that the director should be aware of.

But when this official came into my office, where a number of us had gathered, he was dumbfounded. I remember asking, How did it go? and watching him shake his head in response, then explain that the briefer on the dachas spoke for no more than a few minutes. For practically the whole rest of the meeting, the president talked nonstop. That day, North Korea was on the president’s mind. North Korea had recently conducted a test of an intercontinental ballistic missle, potentially capable of striking the U.S.—Kim Jong-un had called the rest a Fourth of July “gift” to “the arrogant Americans.” But the president did not believe it had happened. The president thought it was a hoax. He thought that North Korea did not have the capability to launch such missiles. He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.



Saturday, April 27, 2019

the last book I ever read (The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe, excerpt six)

from The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew G. McCabe:

In the first few briefings with Sessions, conversations necessarily covered a lot of basic material. Jim Comey was the FBI director, and he began at the beginning. Described the differences between the Sunni and Shia practices of Islam. Explained which terrorist groups lined up with which religious philosophies. During the PDB, Comey and Sessions would have religious discussions: wide ranging, even free flowing. As a double major in chemistry and religion, Comey was well positioned to engage the AG on the groups we tracked and the religions they followed. Sessions believed that Islam—inherently—advocated extremism. The director tried to explain that the reality was more complicated. Talking about religion was Comey’s way of trying to connect with Sessions on terrain familiar to them both.

Leading the Justice Department is one of the biggest responsibilities a person can have in this country. Getting up to speed on intelligence, and categorizing it properly in memory, is a basic part of the job. Sessions did not compartmentalize the new knowledge he acquired. He would say, I saw in the paper the other day . . . and then would repeat an item that we had briefed him on a few days earlier, intelligence from the PDB. Sessions was confusing classified intelligence with news clips. It was an early sign that this transition would be more challenging that we expected.