Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life

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My Body Is Mine


It was 2010, six months after returning to Portland, Ore., from a stint of working as a stripper on the Pacific island of Guam. My car radio was tuned to NPR on my drive home from a boring office job. “This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross,” the familiar voice sounded from the speakers quietly as I turned out of the parking lot. I listened passively, as I always did, while stuck in traffic at this time of day. My apartment was only a two-minute drive — extended to 10 minutes in traffic. “I’ve always wondered who responds to ads like this one,” Terri Gross continued, “which was in the back of the Village Voice: Attractive, young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination. No experience necessary, good money, no sex. Well, my guest actually answered that ad and spent four years as a professional dominatrix in midtown Manhattan. And now, she’s written a memoir about it called Whip Smart.” I turned up the radio and wished for the traffic to worsen, to be stuck in my beat up silver Kia for the duration of the interview. I wanted to know everything, but not just because the guest had been a dominatrix, but because she wrote about it. I couldn’t imagine writing about my experience as a stripper, but especially my experience working in Guam, despite the fact that my plan was to major in creative writing. I’d write about lots of things, I’d thought. Just not that. I wanted to know about the kind of person that would write about it and then go on NPR. Then Terri Gross said, “It may be the first dominatrix memoir that mentions growing up listening to NPR.” The author was Melissa Febos. I was hooked.

I got home even faster than I anticipated. I sat in my car, turned off the windshield wipers and watched the rain pitter-patter before me. I listened for the next half hour, without moving, close to crying but not exactly sure why. At the close of the interview Gross questioned Febos about whether her academic and career prospects might be damaged by her publishing Whip Smart. Not only had she been a dominatrix, but she was also a recovering heroin addict. I leaned into the radio, my own potential future breathing down my neck — I’d long been terrified that my five year career as a stripper might hold me back. It was the primary reason I felt I couldn’t write about it. “I have no idea if they’re going to interfere, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m sure that there are certain universities that would object to hiring me because of those experiences, but that doesn’t affect my view of their value,” Febos answered. As I had so many other times in my life, I wished I could be that bold.

During the interview, I learned that Febos attended The New School — a university I’d never heard of before. It was located in the West Village, not far from NYU. As soon as the interview ended I did two things: purchased Whip Smart and Googled The New School. I realized immediately that it was the university for me. Ten months later I started my studies there as my family scoffed that I’d never be able to survive in New York.

I read Whip Smart in a single night. Febos wrote about sex work in a way I’d never read before. That in the beginning everything about it makes one feel powerful, but how that feeling erodes with time, never fading completely away. But eventually there is acceptance that there are disempowering as well as empowering aspects to the work. I read the memoir Strip City, too, in which Lily Burana defines this for exotic dancers as “stripper damage.” I love that characterization, but it still feels a little too simple, too boiled down. As the years go on, more than anything, dancing settles into a routine — just like any other job. It loses the intrigue, mystery, the newness and glittering of the taboo. Things that were once novel or shocking become dull and meaningless. There is a getting-through-the-day that takes over. Febos writes:
When people asked me how the work affected me, my line was: “I don’t know yet; ask me in ten years.” When I thought about how long I would do it for, I assumed that there would come a day when I simply couldn’t anymore, when everything about it had become banal and sad and I was done.
I felt similarly about dancing, and yet the times I tried to force an ending didn’t work. I couldn’t find a straight job or a straight job didn’t pay enough or I’d have a good straight job for a few months and then get laid off because of the economy. At the time I heard Melissa Febos’s interview I’d claimed I’d retired. I had two part-time office jobs, a full time school schedule, but still picked up shifts at the club I’d grown to consider my “home club” in Portland. I needed to save for my move to New York City.

But it was an extreme way to live. Sometimes I was up for 48-hours at a time in order to manage it all. I kept stripping a secret at the time. It seemed necessary after living in Guam. I had discovered upon my return that everyone that loved me had been worried. I didn’t talk about it much. I was accused of doing things I hadn’t (mainly prostitution). No one knew exactly why I went nor would they listen nor was I fully willing to be honest anyway. When I started to dance again I insisted silently to myself it was just about the money, but the moment I stepped back in the club, the moment I slithered into my favorite piece of sheer pink lingerie, brushed black mascara onto my eyelashes, and slipped into my eight-inch platform shoes, I felt relieved. I felt home. I was addicted.

Febos, too, felt addicted to sex work. In some ways it was worse then her heroin habit because she couldn’t kick it, like she did the drugs. Febos turned to her sober roommates looking for advice when she wanted quit sex work, but wasn’t able to:
…when I went to my roommate and expressed my reluctance, she looked at me in disbelief.

“Yeah he sounds really annoying. But fifteen hundred dollars? Come on. I would do it if I could.” What she meant was if she had the opportunity. At this point, I was starting to know better…I could not imagine my roommate going through what I knew a session entailed.

For fifteen hundred dollars. For an hour’s work. It sounded amazing, when you don’t know what the work meant, or when you pretended not to.
In Whip Smart, it starts to feel like she loathes the dungeon and judges everyone around her for participating in it — even though she, herself, is part of that world. I often made fun of the desires of my strip club regulars, not considering the fact that I was participating in exactly what they wanted of me. During one session, Febos suddenly feels that she and her client were brought together by some unknowable force. That there must be something more to her being in those rooms with men hoping for humiliation and her pleasure in doling it out:
Who was this man? What did we have in common to have both ended up in this room? I teetered over his face, peering into it for a dizzy moment. In what direction had this man come from, and where was he going? It was a feeling too objective to be compassion, but I suddenly felt on equal footing with him. For a moment, we formed two halves of a perfectly balanced scale.

And then I looked down at his erection and realized that the feeling was probably not mutual.
Years after the publication of Whip Smart, Febos published an essay in the “Sex, Again” issue of Tin House titled “My Melissa.” In it she explores the ways her lovers rejected her identity as a person who worked as a dominatrix:
After he read the memoir I’d written, he said, I think of her as a different person. Not my Melissa. He preferred me shy. So I distanced myself from the woman I’d written about.

…He drew a line between the body I wrote about and the one he loved.
This is common. One man I dated found what I had done in my past disgusting. When money was particularly tight I told him I was considering going back, and he said he’d leave me and then refused to talk to me for the rest of the day. I wasn’t that girl anymore, he asserted. I was someone else. But I was. I was always the girl that stripped and so much more. Febos ends her essay:
There are not two of me. I am not four times removed from myself. There is Melissa. The one who still dims the lights before she undresses. The one who once put her foot inside a man’s asshole. The one who wrote that book, and the next one. The one who prefers making love to bodies that look like her own. Who was never allowed to love her own body.

What I mean is, the next lover who tells me it wasn’t me won’t be a lover I’ll keep. And if you want to know how it felt to spank someone, I will tell you how it feels to be asked such a question.
“Kettle Holes,” another essay, was published in Granta six months before the release of Febos’s new collection of essays Abandon Me. “Kettle Holes” explores her attraction to the dungeon. The foundation, she discovered, was in her formative adolescent years when a boy she had known spit on her — later it became a fetish that she acted out in the dungeon.
What do you like? the men would ask. Spitting, I’d say. To even utter the word felt like the worst kind of cuss and I trained myself not to flinch or look away or offer a compensatory smile after I said it. In the dungeon’s dim rooms, I unlearned my instinct for apology.
Febos found the idea of spitting on someone without consent unthinkable, but for men who wanted it? Who asked for it? It was, in a way, a loophole. As a stripper, I never wanted to hurt the men I danced for, but like Febos, when they asked for torture, I delighted in complying. One man wanted me to smoother him with a pillow for hours, another had me crush his testicles with my eight-inch stiletto heel repeatedly. I glowed after both of these interactions, happier about the fact the interaction had happened, than the hundreds of dollars they’d paid. I insisted I wasn’t angry, that I actually loved men, and here again are parallels:
You must work out a lot of anger that way, they suggested. I never felt angry in my sessions, I told them. I often explained that the dominatrix’s most useful tool was a well-developed empathic sense. What I did not acknowledge to any curious stranger, or to myself, was that empathy and anger are not mutually exclusive.
After I’d quit dancing, I also came to believe that my attraction to stripping had much to do with my adolescence. I was sexually abused as a child. I developed early and was told many times, starting at the age of 12, that I oozed sex. That I was sex. That sex embodied me. Stripping was a way to control the thing people asserted I was, whether I wanted it or not, and then have the power to control it. I learned how to say no to men as a stripper. Before getting naked in front of groups of strangers, I hadn’t yet realized that my body was mine:
In the dungeon, my identity was distilled once again to its objective meaning. And those men, like all the men before them, prescribed my body’s uses. But this time, my job was to deny instead of acquiesce, to say no instead of yes. Maybe this was the best way to learn how to form those sounds in my own mouth.
The essays in Abandon Me explore several of Febos’s important personal relationships: with her adopted sea captain father, the love affair with a woman named Amaia, her brother, and meeting her biological father — a member of the Wampanoag tribe. These pieces culminate in the 173-page title essay, “Abandon Me.” It is within this section that alongside her love affair with the married Amaia, Febos meets her birth father. Each relationship bounces off the other. The relationship with Amaia rips apart while the relationship with her biological father, painfully and slowly, stitches together. The essay opens: “Every story begins with an unraveling. This story starts with a kiss. Her mouth the soft nail on which my life snagged, and tore open.”

I devoured these pages. Curled up on my coral-colored couch, I sometimes looked up as if someone might catch me in the act of crawling into her mind and living there for a while. It felt like I was being folded into her prose. Six months before I started reading Abandon Me, I’d learned who my father was, and that he had passed away seven years prior. Even with the theme of abandonment so clear, I wasn’t expecting to find something so specifically relatable. I expected that of Whip Smart. Of “My Melissa.” Of “Kettle Holes.” And many of the elements leading up to the title essay I had grabbed onto, lived within, but here was where Febos tore me open and never let me go.

Abandon Me doesn’t have graphic, shocking scenes like Febos’s first, instead she goes further into the messy vulnerable, human parts of herself. In “All of Me” Febos writes of her propensity for secrets, she created a “secret world in drugs and desire.” She didn’t acknowledge her desire to be seen, but wrote and published Whip Smart anyway: “a story full of things I’d never spoken aloud to anyone.” She comes to terms with the fact she’d always wanted to be seen. “It’s a violent way to emerge, to tell a secret,” she goes on. Right now, I’m grappling with the possibility of exposing my own secrets. Seven years after I heard Febos’s NPR interview, I’m in the middle of revisions on my memoir about working as a stripper on the island of Guam. I wonder if I can muster the courage to put it into the world, still unsure that what I want is to be seen. But, I’m comforted that Febos found the courage to do so. It makes me feel understood. And in a small way, I’m emboldened by it.

Loving That Wild Thing: Leigh Stein’s ‘Land of Enchantment’

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He’s the guy with the electric eyes and unkempt hair. The guy with the daddy issues and the temper and the drug problem. One day, he loves us, and the next, he’s gone. We are the good girls. We don’t drink or make trouble. We come from good families. So why do we need to tame that wild thing?

In her memoir, Land of Enchantment, 32-year-old Leigh Stein takes us inside this invisible addiction. In 2007, she pursues a life in Albuquerque, N.M., with her own wild thing: 18-year-old rebel Jason, who she meets at an audition for Medea. They make a pact to live together, be in love, and work on their careers — she will write her novel while he will chase acting gigs. Everything about their life starts out exciting, until slowly, Leigh realizes, it isn’t anymore.

Enticed by other girls and stricken with manic episodes, Jason’s violence breaks the surface. He begins by playfully hitting Leigh on her arms and legs, and then escalates his frightening behavior. Leaving Leigh increasingly anxious and depressed, his abuse takes her to the point where she no longer recognizes herself, “I could feel myself molting like an animal–,” she says, “shedding my childish skin, my kindness, my passivity, and in its place growing the scales of a woman who would do anything to get what she wanted.” Leigh feels like Jason’s only hope. She will take the physical and figurative hits for him. Even when she tries to move on with her life, Jason continues to haunt her. Then in 2011, everything changes. She learns that Jason has died in a motorcycle accident. The book cycles mostly between 2007 and 2011, and recounts Leigh’s mental exercise in recognizing her abuse, processing her grief, and at last, attempting to heal.

While reading, I couldn’t help but picture my own wild thing. I’ve always been a good girl. I was raised to follow the rules and do what was asked of me. The guys I dated were Nice Jewish Boys (NJBs), who my mom applauded and who I smiled at, uninterested. What I craved was the bad boy. In college, I ventured slightly out of my comfort zone and met a poet at my first frat party. It felt like he and I were the most uncomfortable people in the room, and we started talking over my first drink ever. He had an entrancing accent; troubled eyes; a murky past; and was also, I later found out, a severe alcoholic. I was in trouble, but I didn’t turn away.

Stein’s book made it easier for me to see why I would make that choice, and continue to make those choices even after I supposedly learned my lesson. I recently got the chance to talk to her about the book and the puzzling cycle of abusive relationships for FORTH Magazine. We also discussed her various dimensions of grief after Jason’s sudden death, as well as her dependence on the Internet to make friends and get her voice out to the world. Plagued by depression as a young girl, Stein felt comforted by the burst of life that Jason gave her, even if the experience was largely abusive. “If you’ve never experienced it,” she told me, “you might think, why is she with that asshole if he’s such a dick to her, and she says it’s so bad? But it’s not so bad all the time — sometimes it’s amazing.”

This is how the young brain works, Stein said. That wonderful “sometimes” is enough to justify all the not-so-wonderful other times. She told me that she’s done some research: The prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and behavioral control, doesn’t stop developing until we’re 25. This, Stein said, could be why “people become addicted to drugs and alcohol when they’re young. Of course they want to try, and then they become hooked and can’t control their behavior. That’s what happened with Jason. I was young; he was young. I couldn’t say no.”

Not being able to say “no” is something I’ve heard as early as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in elementary school, then again in health class in junior high, and again in Sex Ed in high school. It would seem we’d be able to get it into our heads by now. But the good girl complex makes us resistant to displeasing, and we’re often those girls that say “yes” to everyone and then end up overwhelmed by promises we make that we can’t deliver. Addiction is often invisible in the same way that abuse or depression can be. Depression, Stein told me, makes women more vulnerable to abuse, and vice versa. As a person who has experienced bouts of depression, I asked her about criteria. I’m often frustrated by criteria provided by the DSM-V — a manual on mental health (not one easily digested by the lay-person). In a similar way, people often think there are criteria for abuse. If there are no bruises to prove it, was I abused? In Land of Enchantment, Stein tells us that abuse, like depression, can live beneath the surface, that emotional abuse can be even more painful and long-lasting than physical abuse.

It seems as though for me, Stein’s book came out too late. If I had had the opportunity to read it in college, I might have avoided some heartbreak. But sometimes the only way to understand something is to go through it yourself. While I hadn’t heard anything bad from my peers about the poet, I just had a bad feeling I couldn’t name. The day I officially became his girlfriend, there was a massive hurricane — the corniest omen I could have expected. (Almost as corny as Leigh meeting Jason at an audition for a Greek tragedy.) I called my mom and she told me to get out of the relationship. Curiosity and boredom with my follow-the-rules philosophy got the better of me though, and I decided to wait out the storm instead.

It took a month for me to realize that the omen and my mom (as always) were correct. I would walk home alone at night after the poet dismissed me coldly from his apartment. A friend of mine found him one morning passed out under a bench. He had cut his face in a fist-fight that he said was from a fall on the street and covered it with makeup. He told me he thought about killing himself, but didn’t want to scare me away. He didn’t want to be the good boy. He didn’t know how to be good. I felt sorry for him and wanted to help, but knew I needed to get out.

In a similar way, the last time Jason visits Leigh is in New York years later. She has great friends and is enjoying her prestigious new job. The visit starts out with as much excitement as when they first met, until Jason hooks up with a bartender. He has another manic episode when Leigh invites him out with her friends. She realizes it’s over for good, and she just wants him to leave.

I knew it was over with the poet when we went home for spring break. Stein’s book made me think about the reasons I wanted him in the first place. He needed help, and I was available. I was bored and craved his intrigue, his foreignness. I didn’t want to be treated like a princess. I wanted to be treated like a confidante or therapist. In a way I loved to feel miserable with him. Then I realized I spent way too much time trying to fix someone who didn’t seem to want to be fixed.

Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, echoes my sentiments in her blurb of Stein’s book: “I wish I could give this memoir to my younger self, and to all those smart, deeply feeling girls who so easily mistake intensity for intimacy.” This intensity, Stein told me, is something that feels like love, and sometimes is indistinguishable from it. The success of abuse is attributable to its duality. One moment, you hate each other, and the next, you don’t know how you could ever live without each other.

Leigh writes that though her mother, like mine, warned her about Jason’s empty promises, she remained “his believer, the one person in his life willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Finally, with the aid of therapy, antidepressants, and a new attitude, Stein was able to siphon her painful experience into something good. After Jason’s death, Stein started following a Facebook group devoted to women writers, which led her to found a nonprofit organization called Out of the Binders that encourages women to pursue careers in film and television.

Stein’s Land of Enchantment teaches us that it’s not cowardly to retreat at signs of trouble. Early on, she quotes a torch song by John Moore that I think sums up the nature of the good girl’s eternal obsession with the wild thing: “It no longer matters why she loved her mediocre man while he was there, all that matters is that she loves him now [that] he has gone.”

Most Anticipated, Too: The Great Second-Half 2016 Nonfiction Book Preview

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Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the second half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 44 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new rock memoir by Bruce Springsteen to a biography of one our country’s most underrated writers, Shirley Jackson, by critic Ruth Franklin. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jesmyn Ward, Tom Wolfe, Teju Cole, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Lewis, our own Mark O’Connell, and many more.

Break out the beach umbrellas and the sun block. It’s shaping up to be a very hot summer (and fall!) for new nonfiction.

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky: Advice from “Polly,” New York magazine’s online column for the lovelorn, career-confused, adulthood-challenged, and generally angsty. Havrilesky pours her heart into her answers, offering guidance that is equal parts tough love, “I’ve been there,” and curveball. This collection includes new material as well as previously published fan favorites. (Hannah)


Trump: A Graphic Biography by Ted Rall: Just in time for the Republican convention, cartoonist Rall follows his recent graphic bios of Sen. Bernie Sanders and CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden with a comic book peek into the life and times of America’s favorite short-fingered vulgarian. Given that Rall once called on Barack Obama to resign, saying the 44th president made “Bill Clinton look like a paragon of integrity and follow-through,” it’s a safe bet that Trump won’t be flogging this one on his campaign website. (Michael)

Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey: A biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and creator of Cosmopolitan magazine, following Brown from her upbringing in the Ozarks to her freewheeling single years in L.A. to her rise in the New York advertising and magazine world. The “fun, fearless” editor lived large and worked hard, embracing new sexual and economic freedoms and teaching other women to do the same by offering candid advice on sex, love, money, career, and friendship. (Hannah)


Bush by Jean Edward Smith: He did it his way. According to Smith, author of previous bios of Dwight D. Eisenhower and F.D.R., President George W. Bush relied on his religious faith and gut instinct to make key decisions of his presidency, including the fateful order to invade Iraq a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks. Only in the final months of his second term, with the banking system nearing collapse, did the “Decider-in-Chief” pay closer attention to expert advice and take actions that pulled the world economy back from the brink. (Michael)

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman: Fans of This American Life might recognize Braverman from Episode 558, “Game Face”, in which Braverman, working as a dog musher, got stuck in a storm on an Alaskan glacier with a group of tourists who had no idea of the danger they were in. Her memoir describes her tendency to court danger as she ventures into the arctic, a landscape that is not only physically exhausting but also a man’s world that doesn’t have much room for a young woman. (Hannah)


The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese: Some questioned Talese’s journalistic ethics when an excerpt from this book was published in The New Yorker in April. Others admired it as an endurance feat of reporting. Talese spent decades corresponding and visiting a voyeuristic motel owner, Gerald Foos, who constructed a motel that allowed him to secretly spy on his guests. After 35 years, Foos agreed to let Talese reveal his identity and lifelong obsession with voyeurism. In the weeks leading up to publication, Talese has admitted that some of the facts in the book are wrong and told The Washington Post that he won’t be promoting it. Then he told the The New York Times he would be promoting it. We don’t know what to make of it all, either. You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself. (Hannah)

Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye: Drawing on interviews, unpublished memoirs, newly released government files, “and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for the past forty years,” Tye traces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from 1950s cold warrior to 1960s liberal icon following the assassination of his older brother, John, in 1963. In an era when presidential candidates are routinely excoriated for decades-old policy positions, it can be instructive to recall that the would-be savior of the urban poor began his public life just 15 years earlier as counsel to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (Michael)

The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward: Fifty-three years after James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, and one year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s scalding book-length meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Ward has collected 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race in America, including Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. “To Baldwin’s call we now have a choral response — one that should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom,” says historian Jelani Cobb.

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik: This parenting book takes issue with the culture of “parenting,” a hyper-vigilant, goal-oriented style of childcare that leaves children and caregivers exhausted. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and the author of The Philosophical Baby, argues that parents should adopt a looser style, one that is more akin to gardening than building a particular structure. Her metaphor is backed up by years of research and observation. (Hannah)


Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)


American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin: As the author of The Run of His Life, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and A Vast Conspiracy, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Toobin is no stranger to tabloid-drenched legal sagas, which makes him an ideal guide to the media circus surrounding Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping and later trial for bank robbery. Drawing on interviews and a trove of previously unreleased records, Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, tries to make sense of one of the weirdest and most violent episodes in recent American history. (Michael)

The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe: The maximalist novelist returns to his nonfiction roots with a book that argues speech is what divides humans from animals, above all else. (Tell that to Dr. Dolittle!) Wolfe delves into controversial debates about what role speech has played in our evolution as a technological species. For a sneak preview of his arguments, check out his 2006 NEA lecture, “The Human Beast”. (Hannah)


Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson: Anyone needing to be reminded that the problems in America’s prison system date back to long before the War on Drugs may want to pick up Thompson’s history of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising. After 1,300 prisoners seized control of the upstate New York prison, holding guards and other employees hostage for four days, the state sent in troopers to take the prison back by force, leaving 39 people dead and 100 more severely injured. Thompson has drawn on newly unearthed documents and interviews with participants from all sides of the debacle to create what is being billed the “first definitive account” of the uprising 45 years ago. (Michael)

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole: This first work of nonfiction by the Nigerian-American novelist best known for Open City collects more than 50 short essays touching on topics from Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare to Instagram and the Black Lives Matter movement. In one essay, Cole, an art historian and photographer, looks at how African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, forced to shoot with film designed for white skin tones, depicted his black subjects. In another essay, Cole dissects “the White Savior Industrial Complex” that he says guides much of Western aid to African nations. (Michael)

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: After performing at halftime for the 2009 Super Bowl, the bard of New Jersey decided it was time to write his memoirs. This 500-page doorstopper covers Springsteen’s Catholic childhood, his early ambition to become a musician, his inspirations, and the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s lyrics have always shown a gift for storytelling, so we’re guessing this is going to be a good read. (Hannah)


Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil: Big Data is everywhere, setting our insurance premiums, evaluating our job performance, and deciding whether we qualify for that special interest rate on our home loan. In theory, this should eliminate bias and make ours a better, fairer world, but in fact, says O’Neil, a former Wall Street data analyst, the algorithms that rule our lives can reinforce discrimination if they’re sloppily designed or improperly applied. O’Neil has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, and runs the blog, mathbabe.org, where you can find answers to questions like “Why did the Brexit polls get it so wrong?” and why the data-driven policing program “Broken Windows” doesn’t work. (Michael)

Words on the Move by John McWhorter: Does the way some people use the word “literally” drive you up the (metaphorical) wall? Before you, like, blow a gasket, try this book by a Columbia University professor who argues that we should embrace rather than condemn the natural evolution of the English language, whether it’s the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or the advent of business jargon like “What’s the ask?” If that’s not enough bracing talk about how we talk, in January 2017 McWhorter is releasing a second book, Talking Back, Talking Black, about African American Vernacular English. (Michael)

The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré: The British intelligence officer turned bestselling spy novelist has written his first memoir, regaling readers with stories from his extraordinary writing career. A witness to great historical change in Europe and abroad, le Carré visited Russia before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and met many fascinating characters in his travels, including KGB officers, an imprisoned German terrorist, and a female aid worker who was the inspiration for the main character in The Constant Gardner. Le Carré also writes about watching Alec Guinness take on his most famous character, George Smiley. (Hannah)

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb: Legendary editor and dance aficionado Gottlieb has had a career that could fill several memoirs. He began at Simon & Schuster, where he quickly rose to the top, discovering American classics like Catch-22 along the way. He left Simon & Schuster to run Alfred A. Knopf, and later, to succeed William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb has worked with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Caro. (Hannah)

This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp: In the contemporary American mind, the Confederacy is recalled as a rump government of Southern plutocrats bent on protecting an increasingly outmoded form of chattel slavery, but as this new history reminds us, before the Civil War, many of the men who guided America’s foreign policy and territorial expansion were Southern slave owners. At the height of their power in antebellum Washington, Southern politicians like Vice President John C. Calhoun and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis modernized the U.S. military and protected slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. (Michael)

Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson, best known for her bone-chilling and classic short story, “The Lottery,” has to be one of our most underrated novelists. Franklin describes Jackson’s fiction as “domestic horror,” a pioneering genre that explored women’s isolation in marriage and family life through the occult. Franklin’s biography has already been praised by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that it provides “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly.” (Hannah)

When in French by Lauren Collins: New Yorker staffer Collins moved to London only to fall in love with a Frenchman. For years, the couple spoke to each another in English but Collins always wondered what she was missing by not communicating in her partner’s native tongue. When she and her husband moved to Geneva, Collins decided to learn French from the Swiss. When in French details Collins’s struggles to learn a new language in her 30s, as well as the joy of attaining a deeper understanding of French culture and people. (Hannah)


Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: During the early Space Race years, female mathematicians known as “human computers” used slide rules and adding machines to make the calculations that launched rockets, and later astronauts, into space. Many of these women were black math teachers recruited from segregated schools in the South to fill spots in the aeronautics industry created by wartime labor shortages. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures, which focuses on the all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, is being made into a movie starring Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner. (Michael)

American Prophets by Albert J. Raboteau: This fascinating social history profiles seven religious leaders whose collective efforts helped to fight war, racism, and poverty and bring about massive social change in midcentury America. It’s a list that includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Raboteau finds new connections between these figures and delves into the ideas and theologies that inspired them. (Hannah)

The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs: The title of this essay collection comes from Boggs’s much-shared Orion essay, which frankly depicted her despair as she realized that she might never conceive a child. What made the essay special was Boggs’s eye to the natural world, as she observed fertility and birth in the birds and animals near her rural home. Boggs continues to focus her gaze outward in these essays as she reports on families who have chosen to adopt, LBGT couples considering surrogacy and assisted reproduction, and the financial and legal complications accompanying these alternative means of fertility. (Hannah)

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick: The tech-savvy author of The Information and Chaos shows how time travel as a literary conceit is intimately intertwined with the modern understanding of time that arose from technological innovations like the telegraph, train travel, and advances in clock-making. Beginning with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as a cultural construct from the novels of Marcel Proust to the cult British TV show Doctor Who. (Michael)

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Perfectly timed for the start of the last lap of the presidential campaign, this book endeavors to see red-state voters as they see themselves — not as dupes of right-wing media, but as ordinary, patriotic Americans trying to do the best for their families and themselves. A renowned sociologist and author of The Second Shift, a classic 1989 study of women’s roles in working families, Hochschild ventures far from her home in uber-liberal Berkeley, Calif., to meet hardcore conservatives in southern Louisiana. There, as in so much of working-class America, she finds lives riven by stagnant wages, the loss of homes, and an exhausting chase after an ever-elusive American dream. (Michael)

Eyes on the Street by Robert Kanigel: Anyone who has window-shopped in SoHo or marveled at the walkability of their neighborhood can thank activist Jane Jacobs who forever changed how planners thought about and designed urban spaces with her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, traces the roots of the great urban pioneer who wrote seven books and stopped New York’s all-powerful planning czar Robert Moses from running a major highway through Lower Manhattan, all without a college degree. (Michael)

Love for Sale by David Hajdu: In his previous books, Hajdu has written about jazz and folk music; in Love for Sale he tells the story of American popular music from its vaudeville beginnings to Blondie at CBGB to today’s electronic dance music. Hajdu highlights overlooked performers like blues singer Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who incorporated yodeling into his music. (Hannah)


Future Sex by Emily Witt: In her first book, journalist and critic Witt writes about the intersection between sex and technology, otherwise known as online dating. Witt reports on internet pornography, polyamory, and other sexual subcultures, giving an honest and open-minded account of how people pursue pleasure and connection in a changing sexual landscape. (Hannah)


Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner: No, it’s not the second volume of Springsteen’s memoirs — instead, it’s an essay collection from a bestselling author who may be as famous for her defense of chick-lit as she is for her own female-centric novels. This is Weiner’s first volume of nonfiction, and she has a lifetime of topics to cover: growing up as an outsider in her picture-perfect town, her early years as a newspaper reporter, finding her voice as a novelist, becoming a mother, the death of her estranged father, and what it felt like to hear her daughter use the “f-word” — “fat” — for the first time. (Hannah)

Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)

Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love of Walt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)

Black Elk by Joe Jackson: A biography of a Native American holy man whose epic life spanned a dramatic era in the history of the American West. In his youth, Black Elk fought in Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In later years, he fought in Wounded Knee, became an activist for the Lakota people, and converted to Catholicism. Known to many through his spiritual testimony, Black Elk Speaks, this biography brings the man to life, as well as the turbulent times he lived through. (Hannah)

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: As the child of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother who had to pretend she was her own child’s nanny on the rare occasions the family was together, comedian Noah’s very existence was evidence of a crime under the apartheid laws of his native South Africa. In his memoir, Noah recalls eating caterpillars to stave off hunger and being thrown by his eccentric mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters. If you survived a childhood like that, you might not be so intimated at the prospect of replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, either. (Michael)

My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah)


Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael)

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia)

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: Why do people go with their guts, even when their guts so often steer them wrong? Lewis stumbled onto this fundamental human question in his bestselling 2003 book Moneyball, about how the Oakland A’s, a cash-strapped major league team, used data analysis to beat wealthier teams. A brief reference in a review of Moneyball in The New Republic led Lewis to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work explores why humans follow their intuition. If Kahneman’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a Nobel laureate and author of the 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a lot of bestseller cred in one book. (Michael)

And Beyond
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: In his first full-length book, due out in March 2017, longtime Millions staff writer O’Connell offers an inside look at the “transhumanism movement,” the adherents of which hope to one day “solve” the problem of death and use technology to propel human evolution. If O’Connell’s pieces for this site and his ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published by The Millions in 2013, are any guide, To Be a Machine will be smart and odd and very, very funny. (Michael)

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: Following on the success of her debut memoir, Whip Smart, about her years as a professional dominatrix and junkie, Febos turns back the clock to examine her relationship with her birth father, whose legacy includes his Native American heritage and a tendency toward addiction. Interwoven with these family investigations is the story of Febos’s passionate long-distance love affair with another woman. Abandon Me is slated for February 2017. (Michael)


Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A much-needed examination of the recent expansion of for-profit universities, which have put millions of young people into serious debt at the beginning of their careers. Cottom links the rise of for-profit universities to rising inequality, drawing on her own experience as an admissions counselor at two for-profit universities, and interviewing students, activists, and senior executives in the industry. (Hannah)

Hunger by Roxane Gay: In our spring nonfiction preview, we looked forward to Gay’s memoir Hunger, which was slated to be published in June 2016, but her publishing date has been pushed back to June 2017. According to reporting from EW, and Gay’s own tweets, the book simply took longer than Gay expected. She also wanted its release to follow a book of short stories, Difficult Women, which will be published in January 2017. (Hannah)

And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell:  Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)

A Backward Glance at the ‘Brooklyn Renaissance’

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As I write this, my old neighbors in Brooklyn are still digging out from yet another brutal storm while I sit in our new home in Vancouver, British Columbia, the sun shining prettily outside our windows, gulls cawing as they swoop between the masts of the sailboats bobbing in the harbor half a minute’s walk from our front door. For a few days, it looked like we might never make it here. We had been planning our move to Canada for months, but our load-out day was October 30, the day Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Needless to say, we had to reschedule, but the movers arrived in Brooklyn at 10 o’clock the next morning, and somehow we managed to thread the needle between the complete shutdown of the subway and region-wide gas shortages to sneak our way to the airport and out of town.

A couple days after I arrived, a family friend asked me, half-joking, if I felt “survivor’s guilt” about my hairs-breadth escape from New York. I don’t. What I feel instead is a deep sense of loss mixed with a still deeper appreciation of the dumb luck that offered me a front row seat onto one of those rare collisions of time and place that creates the kind of literary scene that has existed for the past decade in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn, with its swarms of goateed hipsterati making artisanal cheeses and tapping out novels at corner coffee shops, is easy to mock, and in truth, the place is a little precious. But for every stay-at-home mom writing imaginary novels between trips to the yoga studio and every coffee house poseur stroking his beard over his battered Penguin edition of Crime & Punishment, there are three or four young, talented writers and editors hard at work on actual pages of actual novels. Mock all you want, but for the moment, if you want to write literary fiction or poetry, Brooklyn is still the place to be.

Longtime New Yorkers tend to get misty-eyed about the seedy old Lower East Side and pre-Giuliani Times Square, but this is mostly nostalgia talking. Times Square may have had its roguish charm when Kerouac and the Beats were trawling for kicks in the early 1950s and the Lower East Side may have possessed a genuine revolutionary spirit in the Hippie Era, but by the time I got there in the mid-80s, when I first came to New York for college, most of the Lower East Side was a crack-ridden pit and Times Square was worse.

Everywhere you looked there were junkies fixing in open doorways and hookers giving blow jobs in parked cars. The subways were unrideable late at night and everybody had a mugging story. One friend of mine got held up by a nine-year-old with a pistol. It all sounds so cool and edgy when you read about it in books like Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, but the reality was ugly and depressing. And dangerous. In 1987, the year I graduated from NYU and left New York the first time, 2,016 people were murdered in the five boroughs; the year before, a gang of white kids from Howard Beach chased Michael Griffith, a Trinidadian immigrant, onto the Shore Parkway where he was run over by a speeding car, one of a series of racially motivated crimes that brought the city to the brink of full-scale riot.

You can argue, as many did back then, that the rigors of everyday life in New York tested the mettle of young writers, tossing out those either untalented or unserious enough to last. But this argument, I think, is based on a hopelessly romantic notion of what nurtures and grows good literary writing. Of course, no writer who has never known real suffering will ever create anything worth reading, but for the most part, books are survivors’ tales. Suffering and crisis are always central subjects of good books, but writers who themselves have descended into crisis, whether chased there by their own demons or by societal chaos, tend not to write good books. They’re too busy digging themselves out of their deep, dark hole.

This isn’t necessarily true of all art forms. For instance, popular music, whether it’s rock or hip-hop or the blues, is mostly the product of young kids finding new ways to use old instruments and is, almost by definition, an outsider art form. The Lower East Side of the 1970s, just like the South Bronx of the 1980s and working-class London and Liverpool in the early 1960s, produced some of the last century’s great popular music. Listen to the mad thunder of Keith Moon’s drumming on The Who’s early albums or the angry rhymes of early rappers like Public Enemy or Run-D.M.C., and you can hear, almost in real time, the rage of the streets outside the studio.

Good writing, on the other hand, requires distance, as well as a certain level of education and economic stability. Writers need time and space to work — that room of one’s own Virginia Woolf talked about — as well as a vibrant cultural scene to feed off of when they’re not writing. Like the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s and New York’s Greenwich Village a few years later, today’s Brooklyn has hit that cultural sweet spot that makes it ripe for an outpouring of great writing: It is near a major center of culture, but its rents are still low enough to let younger writers cobble together a living out of a bunch of odd jobs, while crime and chaos are kept just far away enough to allow for quiet reflection.

Everybody knows the boldface names who grace the borough. Jennifer Egan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead live in Fort Greene; transplanted Brit Martin Amis lives in Cobble Hill; and you could stock a fair-sized bookstore with the novels of writers now living Park Slope. But while it’s always nice to have a few famous people around to invite to book festivals and hobnob with at parties, what drives the Brooklyn Renaissance, if you want to give it a name, is the lively mix of young writers and upstart indie magazines and publishing houses, all within shouting distance of one another. Throw in several first-rate small bookstores and access to the mainstream publishing industry, and you have the makings of a burgeoning cultural mecca.

I was blind to the literary ferment around me for the first three or four years I lived in Brooklyn after I moved back to New York with my wife in 2004. Twenty years earlier, when I was at NYU, Brooklyn was, to me, an industrial wasteland full of abandoned factories and grim housing projects. This was only partly true even then, but by 2004, even some of the borough’s roughest neighborhoods were on the mend and old factories in DUMBO and Williamsburg were filling up with indie presses and other arts organizations. But I didn’t see it. To me, Manhattan was where the culture was; Brooklyn was just a pleasant, less expensive place to live.

Then, in early 2008, I took a writing class at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. For me, the success of Sackett Street, which has grown from a handful of writers sitting around founder Julia Fierro’s kitchen table in 2002 to a program boasting 31 part-time instructors and hundreds of students, illustrates the true grassroots nature of Brooklyn’s literary culture. Unlike most other independent creative writing programs, which run the bulk of their classes online, Sackett Street is fully analog, the classes meeting in person, usually in small groups of seven or eight sitting around the workshop leader’s living room. As with any writing course, the quality of the writing in the workshop varies widely, but the discussion in the two classes I attended was always spirited and serious, and I ended up making a number of writer friends I keep up with to this day.

More importantly, though, the Sackett Street classes introduced me to the daily reality behind the cliché of literary Brooklyn. Fierro is a relentless Facebook poster, and I began to hear about readings by little-known writers I admire at Book Court and Greenlight Bookstore. After I attended a few of those, I began to run into indie publishers I only knew by reputation, like Hanna Tinti of One Story and Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. And faster than you can say “indie chic,” I felt a part of a genuine literary scene.

In an article I wrote earlier this year for Prospero, The Economist magazine’s arts and culture website, I called contemporary Brooklyn “a vertically integrated factory for literature.” I was promptly cyber-mocked by the good folks at The Awl, but I stand by my metaphor. Over and over in the past few years, I have watched a young writer come to Brooklyn and begin to climb the closest thing to a career ladder that exists in the literary world, first figuring out how to eke out a living in publishing or teaching, then testing the waters by publishing stories in local lit mags or reading at local reading series before breaking through with a first book. Some of these writers, like Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, have already begun to make their mark in the public consciousness. Dozens of others, now finishing first books or just starting to write publishable stories, will break through in years to come.

To those who argue that a literary scene like Brooklyn’s breeds insularity, I would say: just wait a few years. Literary Brooklyn, like Greenwich Village and the Left Bank before it, won’t last much longer as an incubator of literary talent. Rents, already sky-high in Brownstone Brooklyn, are rising fast in newly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick. For now, the economics works. Young, smart kids can still move to the outerborough neighborhoods, where if they’re willing to live in tight spaces and work long hours, they can serve their apprentice years among other young, smart readers and writers until they begin to have some success, by which time they can afford to trade up to fancier digs in Cobble Hill or Park Slope.

But other smart, young New Yorkers, especially those who work in media and finance, where money is more plentiful, have already begun to discover these one-time no-go neighborhoods, driving up rents and upsetting the delicate economic balance. If you ask me, the ideal moment for the Brooklyn Renaissance — the years just after the 2008 financial crisis — has already come and gone, and by the time Wall Street finds its footing again in a year or two, much of Brooklyn will be like the Lower East Side is now: too pricey for all but young bankers and trustafarians.

So maybe Hurricane Sandy was trying to tell me something and I got out just in time. Eric Obenauf, editor-in-chief at the indie press Two Dollar Radio, who fled Brooklyn’s high rents a few years ago, has written an essay, appearing on The Millions this morning, extolling the virtues of the literary life away from cultural hothouses like Brooklyn. Maybe he’s right, and in a few years I’ll be telling all my friends to ditch the 718 and join me north of the border. But I’m not ready to go there yet. Vancouver is one of the prettiest cities on earth, and from previous visits I know it has a healthy arts scene, bolstered by a growing movie industry, as well as great bookstores and local theater companies. But it’s not Brooklyn. Not for me. Not yet, anyway.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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