Fat Books & Thin Women


#Longreads: Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go”

Occasional posts highlighting some of the best longreads on the web. Trying something new this week, and posting on Friday. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go” comes at the issue of dying from a few directions: the story of a new mother and woman with incurable cancer, Sara Thomas Monopoli; home visits with a hospice nurse; a look at the changes medical innovation and the intracies of health insurance have wrought on death in America; and Gawande’s own attempts to discuss the end of life with his patients.

Gawande’s essay succeeds because he never hesitates to ask questions that can’t be answered, or to condemn even himself for the way he discusses (or doesn’t discuss) death with his patients. Gawande illuminates a part of life that few of us want to think about until it’s inevitable. As he points out here, that reluctance to discuss the end of life may well be making the ends of our lives, in America, more miserable, fraught with false hope and painful treatments, than they should be. This hasn’t always been a problem; until relatively recently, Gawande notes, people took it as a fact of life that some people would be suddenly stricken by illness and, as soon as a few days later, leave this mortal coil. But now, in part because of the seeming conflict between the doctor’s job of curing patients (even from the incurable) and helping patients to die, we are lost.

I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.

This is fascinating and gorgeous writing about a topic too many of us don’t want to touch. Gawande elegantly shifts between Sara Monopoli’s story (which by end will have you wanting to scream, to tell her family how to treat – or not treat – her incurable and spreading cancers, even as you know that were she your own relative you would be desperately googling for the miracle cure) and ideas for how we might find our way back to knowing how to die. What Gawande suggests, that little more than discussion may be the key to reducing needless treatments at the end of life, is simple and revelatory at the same time, as is his consideration of a few cases in which insurance companies and health systems have reduced end-of-life costs while increasing the satisfaction of patients and their families. Attempting to bring these questions into the open, and making them a standard part of end-of-life care, has got to be better than our current system, of which Gawande writes:

We’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets – and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.

Read Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go”

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#Longreads: Paul Collins’s “Vanishing Act”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Paul Collins’s “Vanishing Act” looks at “the saddest reading in all of American literature” and at the author of those out-of-print writings. At the age of twelve, Barbara Newhall Follett sold her first novel, The House Without Windows, to Knopf. She published her second book at fourteen. Both received critical praise, but after these publications Barbara largely fell off the radar. Her father left her and her mother to marry a younger woman, and while Barbara kept up her writing for some years, she married while still in her teens, and sought secretarial work. As Collins writes, “America’s next great novelist was now without a high-school degree, without work, and a teen bride.”

At twenty-six, Follett vanished entirely. Her husband didn’t immediately report her missing, and it was years before the general public realized that the author of two praised books had disappeared – not just from the news, but entirely.

Collins’s concern in this essay is mostly with the nature of child prodigies, and with those who succeed – Mozart – and the many more who disappear (albeit not so completely as Follett) by the time they reach adulthood. It’s fascinating reading; it’s also difficult to read excerpts from Follett’s now out-of-print work, to get even a brief glimpse of the talent she had as a child.

Read Paul Collins’s “Vanishing Act”

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#Longreads: Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books


When I was eight or nine years old and learned that Carolyn Keene wasn’t the writer of Nancy Drew – that Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a name stamped on books written by a number of ghost writers – I was crushed. Briefly, I became suspicious of my other favorite series. Was Ann M. Martin not a real person? How about Francine Pascal?

I got over it in about a day, because I loved the Nancy Drew stories. What I most loved about them was that they seemed to never end. Whether I examined my reasoning or not, I came to accept that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person because the number of writers working on the Nancy Drew books gave me so much more reading material than a single writer ever could. I could read the old yellow hardcover books, the newer trade paperbacks (whose numbers began where the hardcovers’ left off), the mass market editions following Nancy through mysteries + romantic entanglements (The Nancy Drew Files) and college (Nancy Drew on Campus).

Enter Meghan O’Rourke’s fun article, “Nancy Drew’s Father,” which is about not Carson Drew but Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the syndicate that published the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, among others. O’Rourke does a great job of contextualizing Stratemeyer’s success in producing these books, looking both at the company’s workings and at the social changes that left a space for inexpensive hardbacks children would want to buy with their own money. The popularity of the syndicate’s books is hard to believe.

In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list.

Clearly there was a need and desire for the sorts of books Stratemeyer produced. As anyone familiar with the uproar over James Frey’s syndicate knows, it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable with the treatment of novels like any other assembly line product. Stratemeyer’s books fascinate especially because some of them have lasted so long. It’s hard for someone like me, who grew up reading the Nancy Drew books, to imagine a day when they’re not being devoured by children. (To my readers who have children: do they still like these books?)

The Nancy Drew books had a clear house style, and the writers were tasked with filling in the details of the plot outlines provided them by Stratemeyer, producing books that would make a literary critic shudder but thrill legions of young readers.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

It seems to me that Stratemeyer got something right in the characters he was offering readers. Nancy Drew was someone a young reader could look up, could aspire to be, but she wasn’t necessarily someone a mother or father would want their child turning into, despite her good manners.

I’m curious, if you grew up reading the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books: when did you figure out that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon weren’t real people, but pen names? Did that change the way you read the books, or not matter at all? And do you, like me, still hold that dream of writing as Carolyn Keene, despite the horrifyingly low pay and lack of creative freedom?

Read Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

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#Longreads: Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Theth, Albania

I’ve been holding off on posting about Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance” for a few months now, because of the risk of reasserting or reaffirming some of the stereotypes about Albania. This is, to say it early and just one time, a beautiful country – one not without its problems, but home to some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Anderson’s article about Albanian blood feuds, published about thirteen years ago, gives a glimpse of northern Albania, and of traditional blood feuds, that makes for compelling reading. It is also a picture of Albania that is far different from the Albania of today. While the country has its problems – with building infrastructure, with education, with corruption – I doubt anyone would now describe Albania as “an economic ruin, its government is largely theoretical,” as Anderson does in his article.

Anderson considers not only the question of blood feuds in Albania, but the question of what causes violence in the Balkans.

What is it about the Balkans that so defeats all efforts to calm them? In searching for an answer, observers have naturally focused their greatest attention on the succession of conflicts that have torn apart the former Yugoslavia. And in so doing, they have tended to conclude that the Balkans are singularly riven by centuries-old ethnic and religious hatreds — that these are people, or better, groups of people, who simply can’t live together.

Rather than labeling Balkan violence the inevitable result of religious schisms, Anderson considers the issue from the city-village divide. He relies heavily on the idea of the kanun as the guiding force behind the blood feuds; as he writes:

…many Albanians […] once again openly embrace the traditional laws and loyalties of the village. These are spelled out in the kanun (pronounced ka-NOON), a book of rules and oaths. By the dictates of the kanun — there are actually several versions, most of which came into being centuries ago — one’s primary allegiance is to clan and community, not to the state. In accordance with this allegiance, taking revenge in order to defend the honor of one’s family is not only permissible but also a sacred duty. Of course, unlike medieval times, now that duty can be carried out with modern weaponry like assault rifles.

A lock-in tower, as used to be used in blood feuds

Anderson may rely too much on the idea of the kanun – as James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers write in The Albanian Question: Reshaping the Balkans (I know, I know, I am dangerously far into “things none of my readers care about” territory) the kanun has essentially become an oversimplified lens Westerners can use when viewing Albania. The kanun may not be as wholly responsible for guidance of village life as Anderson writes, because during Enver Hoxha’s Communist rule strong local power structures developed and were able to reemerge following the collapse of Albania’s post-Communist government.

Anyway, back to the article! Anderson considers these questions of Balkan violence and what governs these northern Albanian towns and villages by writing about a blood feud in which a man was gunned down in one of northern Albania’s larger towns, Shkodër. Anderson speaks with the families on both sides of the blood feud, and in doing so highlights some of the difficulties with these feuds – that they can go back and forth for years, as neither family is willing to abandon a “blood” after a member of their family has been killed. Anderson’s visit to an Albanian man who negotiates ends to blood feuds is a telling moment, too, as the man describes having to bring the entirety of both feuding families together for a ceremony, to avoid the possibility that one absent family member will claim he is not tied to the peace settlement.

Anderson does an admirable job of reviewing Albanian history, from Hoxha’s rule to the fall of Communism to the pyramid schemes that collapsed in 1997. This is an engrossing read whether or not you’re familiar with Albanian history, and raises necessary questions both about the “Balkan mentality” and about the ties Albanians – that all of us, really – hold to family and community.

Read Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance”

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#Longreads: Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Plagiarist’s Tale”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

One odd side effect of reading Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Plagiarist’s Tale” may be a degree of empathy with the profiled plagiarist, Quentin Rowan, and an intense desire to read his novel. (Though I should be calling it a “mashup.”) Rowan’s spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was set for a November 2011 publication and seemed destined to be a success…until readers began to notice that sections of the novel were lifted wholesale from dozens of other works. Rowan’s efforts to publish his novel, which was in essence a cobbling together of other writers’ work, aided by standard tropes of the spy novel, are shocking; didn’t he expect to be caught? But up to that point, Rowan’s works (apparently all plagiarized, save his first published poem) had been published in venues as respected as The Paris Review, and no one had noticed.

Rowan’s case isn’t one of your standard-issue plagiarism, pulling select lines from other novels and inserting them into otherwise original writing. With Assassin of Secrets he was doing with literature what Girl Talk does to music; the key difference being that Rowan attempted to pass the work off as his own. As Widdicombe notes, writers and plagiarists start out in the same way, and Rowan’s success as the latter can be attributed to some skill – if not as a writer, then certainly as a reader and editor.

The making of a plagiarist can be hard to distinguish from the making of a writer. Joan Didion has described learning to write by typing Hemingway’s fiction; Hunter S. Thompson did the same with “The Great Gatsby.” Rowan reversed the process: he was a writer before he was a plagiarist.

Widicombe goes into Rowan’s backstory, including early efforts at writing, and his slide into plagiarism. She also considers how his novel might have been perceived, if Rowan had stated before publication that he hadn’t so much written the book as edited it. It’s hard, undeniably wrong though Rowan’s “writing” methods were, not to admire his work a bit, and to have some curiosity about it. As anyone who’s struggled to seamlessly insert a(n attributed) quote into an essay knows, there’s a skill to integrating others’ work with your own. That Rowan was able to do so with over thirty sources, to form an entire book by picking and choosing selections of other novels, and to do it so well that no one noticed the plagiarism until after publication, is at the least notable.

Rowan’s method, though—constructing his work almost entirely from other people’s sentences and paragraphs—makes his book a singular literary artifact, a “literary mashup,” as one commenter put it, or spy fiction’s Piltdown Man. Thomas Mallon, the author of “Stolen Words,” a book about plagiarism, described “Assassin of Secrets” as “an off-the-charts case” both in the extent of the plagiarism and in the variety of Rowan’s sources. “It almost seems to be a kind of wikinovel, with so many other writers unwittingly forced to be contributors,” he noted.

In an age when we will crowdsource pretty much anything, when we admire bands whose work is the sampling of other bands, a novel made up of other novels sounds like a sure hit. Where Rowan tripped up is in his desire to be an author, rather than an editor. Witticombe manages to paint a humanizing portrait of Rowan, while addressing these larger questions of what we call literature, and how we like it to be made. It’s hard not to wish that Rowan had sought publication for his work as the mashup it was, rather than as an original novel.

Read Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Plagiarist’s Tale”

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#Longreads: Christopher Beha’s “Leveling the Field”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

After two and a half years in the Balkans I sometimes catch myself comparing the American and Albanian/Macedonian education systems. There’s no point in me getting into the problems with the education systems here – you can read about teaching in a Macedonian school at my other blog – but I wanted to mention that experience to explain my skewed perspective on the American education system. Comparing my experiences at elementary school, high school, and university, with those of my students and friends, it became easy for me to think of the American system as a great success.

As much as we may want to think of American education – American universities in particular – as being a sort of great leveler, though, there are huge inequities in the system. In his piece on Phoenix University, “Leveling the Field”, Christoper R. Beha considers some of these inequalities and basic problems with our current focus on college education for everyone. Beha goes “undercover” as a student at Phoenix, a for-profit university with outposts scattered around the States. Phoenix, like other for-profit universities, benefits from government subsidies (Beha writes that Phoenix receives 88% of its revenue from the federal government) and from Obama’s recent push for increased college education. Though enrollment at for-profit universities has skyrocketed in recent years, this isn’t a good deal, either for the students or for the government.

All this government funding is notable because enrolling at for-profit colleges turns out to be a terrible deal for most students. Almost three fifths drop out without a degree within a year, and virtually all take on debt to help pay for their education. They default on their loans at about twice the rate of students at public colleges and universities and three times the rate of students at private ones. Those who graduate often wind up in low-paying jobs, doing tasks with minimal connection to their degrees.

Beha takes us on a painful trip through the freshman year intro courses at Phoenix (which, as he writes, can’t even qualify as “remedial” classes). There’s something horrifying about Beha’s discussions with classmates, and the degree to which schools like Phoenix are taking advantage of people seeking to better themselves in some way, offering them useless and dull classes and degrees that are nearly worthless. This is an image of education gone horribly wrong, and of a for-profit university system that preys on people who often can’t afford the loss of wasted tuition.

Beha offers a few examples of other countries that are, maybe, doing it better, in part through a determination that a college degree is not “necessary.” There’s Germany, which early on sets its students on tracks either to university or trade schools, and other countries that offer students some more choice in the matter. What’s key, though, is the sense that obtaining a college degree is not the only way to live a fulfilled life or to contribute to society.

On a different end of the spectrum, the New York Times has recently been running some good pieces on internships. Another look at the ways in which our current system of education and of “job training” punishes anyone without the advantages necessary to attend a public or private university, or to work forty hours a week without a salary.

Read Christopher Beha’s “Leveling the Field”

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#Longreads: Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide”
February 1, 2012, 2:47 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is one of those news stories that may never quite die, for the ways it brings these elements of bullying, technology, sexual orientation, to the fore. The timing of it, too, was pretty stunning, coming just after the It Gets Better project began. I was, early on, interested in the story because I attended Clementi’s school, Rutgers; but it’s been so long since it’s been at the top of the news that it’s easy to forget it.

Enter Ian Parker’s New Yorker piece “The Story of a Suicide: Two college roommates, a webcam, and a tragedy.” Parker corrects many of the early misconceptions about the case (namely, that Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, broadcast webcam footage of Clementi, and that Clementi’s suicide was a direct result of this and being outed by Ravi) in this remarkably even-handed piece. Going through the web histories and exchanges of both Ravi and Clementi, Parker shows just how many of their exchanges and problems were the result of little more than teenage stupidity and self-absorption. Ravi has long been painted as the bad guy in the situation, the freshman who outed his roommate in the cruelest manner possible; and while Ravi comes across as childish, thoughtless, and self-centered, Parker is explicit in his detailings of how Ravi’s actions fall short of the early news stories.

Parker raises some interesting questions, as well, about just what Ravi is on trial for. Essentially, Ravi’s actions (of viewing webcam footage, for about five seconds, of Clementi with another man; of posting horrifyingly thoughtless tweets; of advertising a “viewing party” of another encounter, which never happened because Clementi unplugged Ravi’s computer) are those of, as Parker puts it, “shiftiness and bad faith.”

If prosecutors had been able to charge Ravi with shiftiness and bad faith—if the criminal law exactly reflected common moral judgments about kindness and reliability—then to convict him would be easy. The long indictment against Ravi can be seen as a kind of regretful commentary about the absence of such statutes. Similarly, the enduring false belief that Ravi was responsible for outing Tyler Clementi, and for putting a sex tape on the Internet, can be seen as a collective effort to balance a terrible event with a terrible cause.

Parker’s piece is a must-read. Ravi by no means comes out of the piece looking good, but the story as a whole benefits from Parker’s well-reasoned and non-judgmental style.

Read Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide”

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