Literary Hub The best of the literary web Thu, 14 Sep 2023 18:40:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 80495929 Here’s the longlist for the 2023 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Thu, 14 Sep 2023 19:15:07 +0000

Today, the National Book Foundation announced the longlist for the 2023 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The ten titles on the longlist were selected from a pool of 638 books submitted for consideration by their publishers; this year’s judges for Nonfiction are Hanif Abdurraqib, Ada Ferrer (Chair), James Fugate, Sarah Schulman, and Sonia Shah.

The finalists in all categories will be announced on Tuesday, October 3, and the winners will be revealed at the National Book Awards Ceremony on November 15, 2023.

Here’s the 2023 Nonfiction longlist:

Ned Blackhawk, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History
(Yale University Press)

Jonathan Eig, King: A Life
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial
(Grove Press / Grove Atlantic)

Prudence Peiffer, The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever
(Harper / HarperCollins Publishers)

Donovan X. Ramsey, When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era
(One World / Penguin Random House)

Cristina Rivera Garza, Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice
(Hogarth / Penguin Random House)

Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers)

Raja Shehadeh, We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir
(Other Press)

John Vaillant, Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World
(Knopf / Penguin Random House)

Kidada E. Williams, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction
(Bloomsbury Publishing)

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Deesha Philyaw has signed a 7-figure book deal. Thu, 14 Sep 2023 18:40:18 +0000

Deesha Philyaw—the National Book Award finalist whose critically-acclaimed debut, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, had trouble finding a publisher—has just inked a seven-figure, two-book deal.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, a collection of nine stories, was turned down by several major New York publishers before eventually being released by the tiny West Virginia University Press in 2020. It went on to become a surprise hit, winning the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Story Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and is currently being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson producing.

Unsurprisingly, Philyaw and her team have found the major houses to be far more responsive this time around.

As reported by the Associated Press earlier today:

Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, announced Thursday that it had signed up Philyaw and will publish her novel The True Confessions of First Lady Freeman in 2025. Mariner calls the book a “biting satire” of the Black church and “a deeply provocative” story about family, friendship and “sexual agency.” Philyaw, who attended several different churches as a child, is centering the novel around a megachurch leader.

“In writing True Confessions, I really wanted to explore the narratives that 40- and 50-something Black women sometimes tell ourselves—as well as the narratives told about us—regarding our desires and aspirations,” Philyaw said in a statement.

Her second book for Mariner, Girl, Look, is billed by the publisher as a “poignant new collection, giving a vivid snapshot of the interior lives of Black women across generations, drawing readers to consider Black women and girls’ vulnerabilities, invisibility, and beautiful contradictions, in a post-COVID, post-Breonna Taylor world.” Mariner has not set a release date for Girl, Look.

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Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch is publishing a novel. Thu, 14 Sep 2023 15:31:55 +0000

Well, it was inevitable: Stuart Murdoch is having his John Darnielle moment: the Scottish purveyor of your favorite “old sad bastard” music will publish his debut novel, Nobody’s Empire, with HarperVia (US) and Faber (UK) in September 2024.

Here’s a brief description from the announcement on the band’s Instagram: “Part memoir and part fiction, the novel is set in Glasgow and California in the early 1990s and follows a character in ‘search of a new-world reinvention’ after having been in hospital for chronic fatigue syndrome.”

“I drifted into writing Nobody’s Empire,” Murdoch told The Bookseller. “It felt like the right time to tell this story in long-form, even though I have been singing about it for years. I imagined I was writing it for the [myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome] community and as the book went on it became more important to me, gaining a life of its own. I needed it as much as it needed me and I leant heavily on it for solace. Therefore, when it was picked up by Faber for publication, I was elated and very relieved. Hopefully, this is the start of a beautiful relationship!”

Too much to hope for a new album to go along with it?

Photo: Marisa Privitera Murdoch

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Here’s the longlist for the 2023 National Book Award for Poetry. Thu, 14 Sep 2023 14:15:10 +0000

Today, the National Book Foundation announced the longlist for the 2023 National Book Award for Poetry. The ten titles on the longlist were selected from a pool of 295 books submitted for consideration by their publishers; this year’s judges for Poetry are Rick Barot, Heid E. Erdrich (Chair), Jonathan Farmer, Raina J. León, and Solmaz Sharif.

The finalists in all categories will be announced on Tuesday, October 3, and the winners will be revealed at the National Book Awards Ceremony on November 15, 2023.

Here’s the 2023 Poetry longlist:

John Lee Clark, How to Communicate
(W. W. Norton & Company)

Oliver de la Paz, The Diaspora Sonnets
(Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company)

Annelyse Gelman, Vexations
(University of Chicago Press)

José Olivarez, Promises of Gold
(Henry Holt and Company / Macmillan Publishers)

Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory [åmot]
(Omnidawn Publishing)

Paisley Rekdal, West: A Translation
(Copper Canyon Press)

Brandon Som, Tripas
(Georgia Review Books / University of Georgia Press)

Charif Shanahan, Trace Evidence
(Tin House Books)

Evie Shockley, suddenly we
(Wesleyan University Press)

Monica Youn, From From
(Graywolf Press)

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Exclusive: See the cover for Susan Rich’s latest collection, Blue Atlas. Thu, 14 Sep 2023 14:00:36 +0000

Literary Hub is pleased to reveal the cover for Susan Rich’s sixth poetry collection, Blue Atlas, which will be published by Red Hen Press in April. Here’s a bit more about the book from the publisher:

Blue Atlas is a lyrical abortion narrative unlike any other.

This one-of-a-kind collection follows a Jewish woman and her ghosts as they travel from West Africa to Europe and, finally, to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The speaker searches repeatedly for a new outcome, seeking answers in a myriad of mediums such as an online questionnaire, a freshman composition essay, and a curriculum vitae. The raw, often far from idyllic experience of a global love affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy is examined and meditated upon through a surreal prism. The Blue Atlas, a genus of the common cedar tree first found in the High Atlas of Morocco and known for its beauty and resilience, becomes a metaphor for the hardship and power of a fully engaged life.

And here’s the cover, which was designed by Mark E. Cull, publisher of Red Hen Press:

susan rich blue atlas

“The cover of Blue Atlas was one of those instances that was a collaboration between the author and the designer,” Cull told Lit Hub. “In this case, the author, who was full of ideas, had access to a wonderful image of blue-glazed pots arranged against a tightly cropped frame of Mediterranean architecture. Half of these pots are seemingly empty while the other half hold the beginnings of something verdant that is just coming to life. The color and form of the image and the design make for a wonderful piece of eye candy that will make one stop and look and compel them to pick up the book to consider what lies inside.”

“I love how this photograph in non-literal ways, encompasses my divergent worlds,” Rich explained.

The attentive observer notices sea green illuminated walls and four pots glazed in an alchemical, lapis blue. Much like the poems contained in Blue Atlas which chronicle my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, then a quick move to Paris, a hard land in New York, then finally culminating in a sensual journey to Morocco—this cover conveys a message of travel.

It may only be me, but I believe the three-dimensional nature of these tall steps set against a rough-textured backdrop, hint at a kind of epic journey with shimmering highs and disastrous lows.

My quest for cover art comes as an object lesson in joy and despair. I find depth and dimensionality in this chosen image: young garden herbs living on the edge of a borderless stairway.

When I began my search, I had no idea what I wanted. I looked at at least a thousand images until these shapely pots arrived. While it’s true that I believe passionately in color and line, travel and the unknown, I didn’t understand that these beliefs would lead me to my cover.

After a long internet search begun on Pinterest, I tracked down the photographer, Niranj Vaidyanathan, a software engineer based in Bangalore, India. Twelve years ago, while on a holiday in Mauritius, he snapped this photograph. Not only did Niranj immediately allow me to use his work, but he took just two days to lay his hands on the original image and send it off to Red Hen Press. It seems fitting for a lyric narrative that takes place on three continents to add a fourth by way of the photographer.

My poetry collection, Blue Atlas, narrates events that span thirty years of my life, examining in multiple found forms a midterm abortion I had at 26. The poems borrow the shape of an online questionnaire, a freshman composition essay, a personification of the abortion question and other surreal strategies.

This book has taken me more than a decade to write. During this time, the titular blue atlas has stood in for my map of sky and sea. The landscape I inhabit in Seattle, Washington, on the edge of the Puget Sound.

Sometimes I look at the cover and think, if I could climb these stairs, where would they take me? Are they a pathway to connect me to a safer world? Can they bring me out of abandonment and shame? I believe they already have done so. Every time I see this cover, I’m filled with inexplicable peace.

Recently, I’ve discovered that the blue atlas cedar is a tree that originated in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. A nomad of a tree, the blue atlas thrives in many climates, including the Pacific Northwest where I live. Like writing poems, choosing cover art is an act of the imagination, of instinct, of desire. Ultimately, it is an act of magic.

Blue Atlas will be published by Red Hen Press on April 2, 2024. You can preorder it here.

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Lit Hub Daily: September 14, 2023 Thu, 14 Sep 2023 10:30:06 +0000 TODAY: In 1321, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of La Commedia (The Divine Comedy),  dies.   

Also on Lit Hub: Andy Borowitz and A. J. Jacobs on living in the age of ignorance • New poetry by India Lena González • Read from Guzel Yakhina’s newly translated novel, A Volga Tale (tr. Polly Gannon)

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A Lot of Pain and A Lot of Humor: Ottessa Moshfegh on Dinah Brooke’s Lord Jim at Home Thu, 14 Sep 2023 09:00:02 +0000

When Lord Jim at Home was recommended to me, it came with no introduction. I’m glad. I wouldn’t have wanted the effect of the novel to be mitigated in any way, so I’m reluctant to introduce it now. But I will share with you my experiences: I read very slowly at the beginning, studying Dinah Brooke’s uncanny descriptions and syntax, squinting hard to see around the curves and outcroppings of the story, stepping back in astonishment to watch a sentence unfurl like some wild plant, surreal in its beauty and dangerous in its intelligence. Like this child’s bedtime:

The curtains are drawn, the door shut, and like a rubber duck held down at the bottom of the bath and suddenly released he shoots up to float bouncing gently, turning and twisting dizzily between the floor and the ceiling. Swooning in space with the darkness velvet under his hands his body takes on strange shapes, huge, liquid, swelling head and knees, hands like a giant’s, fingers grasping from corner to corner of the room, then suddenly shrinking, wizened, like the inside of his mouth when he has managed to put a thumb painted with bitter aloes into it.

It took me about three weeks to make it through the first seventy-five pages. I kept having to put the book down and get up and look around. “Where am I?” On a train. In a hotel room. On the sofa. In my room. That hadn’t happened to me since I was five, when I’d get hypnotized by the television. But now there was also the unsettling question, “Am I still the same person?” Not really. As I got to the middle of the book, I had the sensation that I had aged about twenty years. Then the sensation reversed, and as I neared the end, I got younger again. I grew new nerves, as if it had altered my anatomy and sense of time.

There is a lot of pain in Lord Jim at Home. And a lot of humor.

When Lord Jim at Home appeared, in 1973, Brooke was thirty-seven, living in London, married to an actor, and raising twins. In a later autobiographical essay, she would list the main events of her life in the early seventies: “Became ardent feminist, then ardent encounter groupie. Turned house into commune. Husband left.”* A time of inner discovery, I suppose. An encounter group (for the uninitiated) is a form of psychodrama therapy in which individuals concentrate on and express their innermost feelings. The idea is that you encounter yourself more honestly by confronting others honestly. I wonder whether Brooke spoke of Lord Jim at Home in those groups. Did people understand anything she said? Or maybe she studied the others, took notes on their limitations and delusions, and fed them to her book like mice to a snake. Perhaps she also fed her book the traumas of people living in her commune. There is a lot of pain in Lord Jim at Home. And a lot of humor. And a lot of another thing that I can’t properly name. And almost no analysis, not really. It is too cool a book for that—cool in temperament as well as in attitude.

To describe the plot here would be to ruin a surprise, so I will only say that the novel is largely a portrait of one Giles Trenchard, born in Cornwall between the wars, a son of the British middle classes, and that apparently it is based on a true story (something I didn’t know when I read it). Giles suffers a horrible and privileged upbringing, goes away to school, joins the Navy, comes home, and attempts to begin a life as a grown man. The novel ends when he is twenty-something and has done something very unexpected, but not altogether shocking— except to the people around him, who ask how someone so “healthy and clean-limbed,” with such an “honest, reliable, open English face” can have acted the way he did. The situation and language echo the Joseph Conrad novel Lord Jim, about a young English sailor who disgraces himself at sea, then spends his life in the South Pacific, trying to escape his cloud of shame. In Brooke’s novel, as the title suggests, escape is not an option. (“Patusan,” the island paradise that Lord Jim makes his own, has become the name of a Navy destroyer.) And the moment of public disgrace isn’t a catalyst, it’s the outcome of a life.

Although we meet Giles as a newborn baby, we never grow to love him. This is not an emotional novel, although it is concerned with the vulnerability of a child’s mind. It is a strong, impermeable book. The narrator’s mind sticks to the facts of subjective experience. If it weren’t such a pleasure to read, I’d say that Lord Jim at Home—read by a novelist, like me—was an instrument of torture. It’s that good.

It takes enormous control to write well about a baby, for one thing, and from a baby’s point of view. A reader naturally feels threatened by that perspective. Ego barges into the mind and says, “What about me? I was a baby, too.” At least that has been my experience. In the same way that we might not want to hear the details of another person’s dreams, we don’t want to hear about their experience being a baby. Nobody should get credit for having a certain kind of dream. And nobody should get credit for being a certain kind of baby. Babies don’t create themselves. They don’t make any decisions about how to be. They don’t know how. And yet we project onto our baby-selves the wisdom of a Buddhist sage. Case in point. My first memory is of being in the crib at my babysitter’s house, waiting for my mother to pick me up. It was night and the room was dark. I was too young to know how to count, but I took some careful note of the many headlights which passed diagonally from the road through the windows and skipped across the perpendicular planes of the walls, like rubber balls, again and again. One of these lights, I knew, would announce my mother, but I had to wait—I felt—an eternity. To me, this recollection is still rife with heartache and is my reference point for the birth of my consciousness, i.e., my existential suffering.

I’m grateful it’s back in print. I think the world may be readier than it was.

This is the first time I have written about it, because until now I was too lazy to describe it. Brooke, however, writes from the point of view of infant Giles with a patient, tireless, and freakish genius. There were times where I felt she had made a chiropractic adjustment in my brain, revising what I understood to be the logic of an infant, and not in the way I expected:

Pain and humiliation. Not so much the soiled nappies pressed over his mouth and nose, as the brisk, impersonal unpinning and flipping from back to front, and wiping. Is she wiping shit off the Prince’s bottom or off the table? Impossible to tell from her expression or her voice. Does that sensation belong to me? wonders the Prince. Does that expression belong to me?

Again, “Where am I? Who am I?” If you can’t answer these questions, you may be suffering from a concussion.

This isn’t the only freakish thing about the book. For example, I would argue that Giles, the main character, is not really a character in any usual sense. He lacks the lowest level of agency and self-definition, although to describe him as passive would be incorrect. More like a human being who has been mostly lobotomized. And yet I feel I understand him, and know him. He is familiar. Simultaneously, I have no anxiety about his well-being. But I do cringe as I read of the cruel abuses by his nurse and parents. I don’t really care what tragedies he suffers during the war, but I like to imagine them. I have no skin in the game at all, in the end, when his fate is up for review. Am I a monster? Or has the book taught me to opt out of the usual mind games that a novel plays with a reader? Worry usually provides suspense. But you have to care in order to have worries. I didn’t care, and I didn’t worry, but I was suspended, consistently and dramatically, in the mirage of the novel, a world that baffled me and yet made perfect sense.

Another disorientation: the perspective attaches onto characters whose tangential narratives are immaterial, the point of view skipping around souls, as though picking people out in a crowd and following them for a minute, and then skipping again. It is jarring to a wonderful effect, mimicking the movement of the protagonist’s depersonalized adventures.

The first publisher of Lord Jim at Home presented it as a novel about the upper middle class in England, as if it were an anthropological study or a work of classic Naturalism, which it most certainly is not. Glancing at the initial criticisms of the novel, I see some advantages to living in this modern age. Even in a favorable review in the Times Literary Supplement, back in 1974, it was clear that the critic Stuart McGregor, a man of good taste, maybe, completely misunderstood the book. In describing the last stretch of the novel, after Giles comes home from war to a mother who greets him politely and then goes back to her game of bridge, he writes, “His postwar story, with its long succession of failures mounting to a sad but long-foreseen climax, is a monstrous parody of the way nice, well-brought-up people think and behave.”

I don’t think so. I think it is an accurate portrayal of how fucked-up people behave, artfully conveyed in a way that nice people are too polite to admit they understand. I’m grateful it’s back in print. I think the world may be readier than it was.


Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke is available from McNally Editions.

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First Lady of Space: How Sally Ride Became A Household Name Overnight Thu, 14 Sep 2023 08:55:37 +0000

“Challenger, this is Houston,” astronaut Mary Cleave called up from the ground in Mission Control. “How do you read?” Mary was one of NASA’s newest astronauts, who’d been selected in a fresh batch of recruits picked in 1980. The latest group had included another woman, too: Bonnie Dunbar, who’d been an engineer at JSC before her selection. Now, with their addition, there were eight women in the astronaut corps.

“I can hear you, Mary,” Sally Ride responded from space.

“Good evening, Sally. Sorry to wake you up,” Mary said. She proceeded to give Sally instructions for making a small adjustment to the Shuttle’s onboard computer. It was a completely normal conversation—fairly boring to listen to—but the substance wasn’t what mattered. It was the first time that a woman on Earth had spoken to a woman in space. Mary and Sally didn’t even recognize the moment at all. They were just having a conversation. A reporter later lamented to Mary how “disappointing” the conversation was for such a special occasion.

But that was how Sally operated. For the six days that she was in space she simply did her job, trying her best to ignore any history that was being made. She couldn’t help it that STS-7 was simply bursting with historic “firsts.” Even its landing was supposed to make a statement. Their mission was slated to perform the first Shuttle landing in Florida. All previous Shuttle missions had landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But NASA had been working on a fancy new runway at Kennedy Space Center, and the concrete was finally ready to feel the Shuttle’s massive tires touch down.

Kathy Sullivan and Dave Leestma perform the Orbital Refueling System experiment during a spacewalk on STS-41-G.

On the day of reentry, however, that historic plan was thwarted. A thick fog bank had rolled over the landing strip, completely obscuring the landscape. Slightly bummed, the astronauts made plans to divert to Edwards. After cleaning their equipment and strapping back into their seats, Robert “Crip” L. Crippen and Frederick “Rick” H. Hauck steered the Shuttle out of orbit, sending the vehicle on its dive toward Earth. Out the window, Sally watched the bright glow of the atmospheric plasma, heating up and enveloping the Shuttle as it sliced through the thick air surrounding Earth.

For Sally, the detour turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As she walked down the stairs leading out of the crew cabin and onto solid ground, only a small crowd of air force personnel and their families were on hand to greet her and the incoming crew. She was 2,500 miles from the thousands who’d gathered at Cape Canaveral, all clamoring to see her arrive. After a quick phone call with President Reagan, who joked that the crew had forgotten to pick him up in D.C. on their way home, Sally addressed the crowd out in the California heat.

“The thing that I’ll remember most about that flight is that it was fun,” Sally told the crowd. “And in fact, I’m sure it’s the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”


That fun that Sally had in orbit would soon be eclipsed by what was waiting in her new reality.

Flying home on a NASA jet, she and the rest of the crew arrived in Houston, and her husband, Steve, was there on the runway to see her. With a big smile, Sally wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug, happy to be reunited. After the rest of the crew had embraced their spouses, they all made their way to limousines that would take them to JSC for one final presentation to an adoring crowd. While at the airport, someone handed Sally a giant bouquet of white roses, adorned with an ostentatious cream bow. She wasn’t the only one to get flowers, either. All the wives of the male crewmates had each been given a red rose, though Steve hadn’t been given anything. Sally carried the massive bouquet with her until they all reached JSC.

It was then that Rosegate occurred.

A large crowd had gathered on the JSC campus, awaiting the STS-7 crew. As the five crewmates and their spouses stepped out of Building 1 to address this latest group of fans, Sally quickly turned and gave the bouquet to a NASA protocol officer. The motive was plain: she just wanted her hands free. Without the bouquet, she stood with her arm around Steve, before speaking to the crowd who cheered her on. Once the presentation was over, the officer who’d taken the flowers returned, trying to give them back. Sally, with Steve next to her, declined to take them, instead turning to talk with George Abbey.

She had no idea the controversy she just ignited.

The next day, a newspaper writer interpreted the act as some feminist statement—a way for Sally to establish equality with her male crewmates. Soon afterward, the letters began pouring in. She’d later write, “That one little action—giving back the flowers—probably touched off more mail to me than anything I ever did or said as an astronaut.”

For the six days that she was in space she simply did her job, trying her best to ignore any history that was being made.

That moment was a harbinger of what was to come. All eyes were on Sally now. Back in the gravity-filled environment of Earth and without a mission to train for, she was now almost completely exposed to the adoring public who wanted to witness her every move. It began the day she came back to Houston, as crowds of neighbors and news crews gathered outside her and Steve’s home, tying yellow ribbons around the trees in her yard and holding up a banner that said, “WELCOME SALLY!”

But Sally and Steve had long planned to escape their abode that night by booking a nearby hotel room. That plan fizzled when Steve went to check in and spotted a reporter he knew hanging around. Instead, the couple went to Dan Brandenstein’s house to spend the night, leading the press to note Sally’s absence at her own home.

It was only a small glimpse at the road ahead.

In just the first month back, Sally and her fellow crew members found themselves speeding through eight different states. They traveled to New York, where they received a key to the city from Mayor Ed Koch. They attended an opulent reception at the National Air and Space Museum with five hundred attendees, plenty of whom asked for Sally’s picture and autograph. There was an intricate military ball at the Dunes Hotel & Country Club in Las Vegas. Again, Sally and the STS-7 crew found themselves at the White House, dining with President Reagan. Sally sat between Reagan and the prime minister of Bahrain, with whom she discussed the feeling of being weightless.

And the whoosh of attention showed no signs of abating. Requests were streaming into NASA to book Sally for every minuscule event. Less than a week after she returned from her flight, the agency received more than a thousand media appearance requests for her. At one point, calls into NASA’s press office asking for Sally peaked at twenty-three an hour.

With the shield of training gone, Sally’s crewmates tried to become her new shield. They made an effort to go with her to as many events as possible—to serve as a buffer between their colleague and the press. “We would minimize those appearances before the flight as much as possible,” Crip said. “And we did that. But she still had a lot of it, and after the flight, some of that protection wasn’t there.” Norm Thagard unfortunately served as a literal buffer during one press event in D.C., when hordes of TV news crews shoved him against the wall as they clamored to get the perfect shot of Sally.

Worse, the requests were starting to get bizarre, like the artist who wanted Sally to sit for a portrait created out of jellybeans. Or the production company that wanted her to act in a comedy where a child dreamt he met Sally Ride while traveling in space. As the requests continued to mount, Sally started to feel more and more out of control of her life. She was an introvert at heart, not one to seek the spotlight willingly. And here she was, seemingly meeting everyone on the planet.

One day, NASA received an invitation for Sally to visit the newly minted Sally K. Ride Elementary School located an hour north of JSC in Conroe, Texas. When Sally received word, she made it clear she did not want to go. But the school desperately wanted her, even calling the director of JSC to secure Sally’s booking. Realizing she couldn’t get out of it, she made a demand that she’d only go if Carolyn Huntoon came with her.

So the two embarked on the short road trip north, getting slightly lost along the way. Once they finally found the school, they drove up and made their way in, only to start hearing a children’s choir start singing as they walked through the front doors.

“We are proud of our school, Sally K. Ride! We will always take a challenge and always do our best…”

Panicking, Sally turned to Carolyn. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Yes, you can, go on,” Carolyn replied. She took Sally by the arm and walked her into the school, where she was reluctantly showered with gifts and subjected to a few more verses of the school’s new song.

As the requests mounted, Sally pulled away more and more. It all came to a head when she got a request straight from NASA Headquarters’ public affairs to go on a new Bob Hope special. The popular comedian was hosting a special tribute to NASA called Bob Hope’s Salute to NASA: 25 Years of Reaching for the Stars, and some famous astronauts including Neil Armstrong had agreed to be interviewed. The production team also wanted Sally. NASA was told that this wouldn’t be a regular comedy show, but a serious discussion with Sally about her thoughts on the world and what her time was like in space. It didn’t matter. Sally turned it down.

Kathy Sullivan in her flight suit, undergoing pre-flight checks.

Reluctant to take no for an answer, headquarters enlisted JSC director Gerry Griffin to try to persuade Sally to change her mind. He found her at work, sat her down, and asked if she’d heard about the request. She said that she had. And she wasn’t going to do it.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because he’s a sexist,” Sally replied. Sally brought up Bob Hope’s USO tour during World War II, which involved parading women in scantily clad attire to entertain the troops. It didn’t matter that she was promised a “serious” show—she didn’t like this man’s reputation.

Gerry continued pressing but Sally stood firm. Soon after that, she just vanished.

She didn’t tell anyone where she was going, not even Steve. But that wasn’t particularly abnormal for her. She’d done this disappearing act before. Steve understood her desire to escape, though he didn’t think it was particularly responsible in these circumstances. Finally, after a week of absence, she called Steve to tell him she was okay and that she had skipped off to California, as he had suspected. She’d taken refuge with Molly Tyson and Molly’s partner in Menlo Park, making sure that an appearance on the Bob Hope special wouldn’t be imposed on her.

It was beginning to dawn on Sally that she needed some help. All her life she’d been a happy individual, excited to wake up and start each day. Now, she realized she wasn’t that same happy person. She woke up nervous, filled with anxiety about what each day might bring.

“Swarms of people surrounding her and people wanting to touch her, take her photograph, invite her to things—she slowly realized it was really getting to her,” Tam said.

In a moment of clarity, she turned to therapy. It’s unclear who exactly she spoke with, though Steve heard later that she supposedly talked to Terry McGuire, the good cop psychiatrist whom they’d all met during the selection process. Either way, Sally knew she needed an empathetic listener who could help her through this unusual time.

For the most part, Sally viewed her press odyssey as a nightmare. But scattered amid the dizzying array of speeches and networking events, there were special moments she came to cherish. She made multiple appearances on Sesame Street, where she loved meeting with the science-curious children. They asked the fun questions, such as what it was like to go to the bathroom in space. And of course, she got to meet some of the people she most idolized. Through her fame, she met Betty Friedan and reconnected with Billie Jean King, whom she’d hit balls with as a young tennis player.

But perhaps the most intriguing person Sally met was one she hadn’t expected to ever meet. At a reception in Hungary where Sally and Steve were attending a meeting of the International Astronautical Federation, Sally felt a tap on her elbow. She turned to find Svetlana Savitskaya, the cosmonaut who’d become the second Soviet woman to fly to space in 1982.

“Sally,” Svetlana acknowledged.

“Hello,” Sally said, cautious.

“Congratulations on your flight.”

“Congratulations to you, too,” Sally replied.

Their conversation didn’t last long—relations between the US and the Soviet Union had been exceedingly chilly in prior months— but later that day Sally heard Svetlana talk and decided she was a genuinely good person. Somewhat surreptitiously, Sally contrived to arrange a more confidential meeting.

Sally started to feel more and more out of control of her life. She was an introvert at heart, not one to seek the spotlight willingly.

Using as an intermediary a Hungarian physicist she knew, she expressed an interest in meeting Svetlana again. Thanks to some behind-the-scenes machinations, Sally wound up being invited to meet a small group of Soviet cosmonauts at the apartment of Hungarian cosmonaut Bertalan Farkas. Steve disapproved of the meetup, conscious of NASA’s dim view of American astronauts mingling with Soviet cosmonauts, so he hung back at a coffee shop. Sally, though, was determined.

The mood at first was tense, with neither party knowing quite how to comport themselves. Sally tried smiling to put everyone at ease. The cosmonauts immediately made a joke about “no press,” which eased everyone’s anxieties. Svetlana then walked over to Sally and sat in a big armchair, right next to hers.

From that moment, the women instantly connected. Svetlana peppered Sally with questions, asking her how long she’d trained and about her flying experience. They swapped stories about the respective spacecraft they flew, with Svetlana fascinated by how the Space Shuttle landed on a runway. At one point, they all devolved into laughter about how they slept in space, with one of the cosmonauts demonstrating by floating his arms into the air.

As they spoke, Sally found that she really enjoyed talking with Svetlana. “I felt closer to her than I felt to anyone in a very long time,” she said. “And it was partly just that I understood a lot of what she had been through.”

Sally thought to herself that Svetlana would have easily made the astronaut corps in the US. In fact, she might have even beaten Sally in the race to be the first American woman to orbit if the two had been pitted against each other, she thought. Ultimately, Sally saw a lot of similarities between her and Svetlana, thinking that the cosmonaut reminded her of her colleague Shannon Lucid most of all.

Sally enjoyed her time at the gathering so much that she stayed for six hours. Long after midnight, she and Svetlana exchanged a few final words and hugged goodbye before their staggered departures.

“I left with the feeling that we would probably meet again,” Sally said. “And if we did, we would be just as close as we were at that moment.”

The whirlwind press tour had brought unbelievable highs and remarkable lows. In the middle of it all, Sally sat down with Gloria Steinem, agreeing to an interview to talk about the surreal few months she’d been experiencing. Sally discussed all aspects of her flight, placing particular emphasis on the SPAS-01 demonstration and the pictures they were able to take while in space.

“That’s probably what our flight will be remembered for, I think, is those pictures,” Sally said.

“Want to bet?” Gloria replied.

Featured image: Sally Ride and Anna Fisher work together at Kennedy Space Center on the payloads for Sally’s flight, STS-7. Anna, who was the lead Cape Crusader for STS-7, is pregnant with her first daughter, Kristin.


Excerpted from The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts by Loren Grush. Copyright © 2023. Available from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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What Writing Under the Constant Threat of Deluge Taught Me about the Creative Process Thu, 14 Sep 2023 08:40:32 +0000

We were wearing headlamps and winter boots, stomping through the dark as the water poured in a deluge overhead. I scooped up my laptop, swaddling it like a baby in a blanket and passing it to my daughter who stood waiting on the stairs; my son rescued the touch-screen monitor, wrapping it in large towels; my husband swiped up the speakers, telephone, the roller-ball mouse, covering everything as we ducked and hurried down the stairs while the rain continued to pour in the dark.

It felt like a monsoon, but we were not outside, there was no wind or sky; we were in my writing studio on the second floor of a water tower. Whenever I do creative work, I do it with two, two-hundred-and-fifty-gallon tanks of water overhead.

That night, the pump had been left running for twenty minutes past the overflow point. We ran back and forth, rescuing items. Even though the pump was off now, water continued to pour in streams through the ceiling boards overhead. We couldn’t turn on the lights for fear of electrocution, and it was winter in northern Wisconsin, so we couldn’t bring anything outside to dry. By the time we went back up to drag out the soggy rug, the sound of the dripping that smacked against my desk, my chair, my books along their spines, had slowed to a percussive littering of wet plops.

Water is an element that spells death to all things writing—books, notebooks, journals, even the scraps of paper that litter my desk when I’m in the throes of a project. I know this because my office has flooded several times. But I keep going back up there because it’s the only place on our property where I can write uninterrupted behind a closed door.

It’s also a rather romantic space.

Built by the previous owners, the water tower is a slim, rectangular edifice that sits on the high point of our land for optimum water pressure. My office resides on the second floor with a view of the trees all around. The space inside measures ten by ten, and although the windows on all four sides get encrusted with ice every winter, I feel held in the treetop branches and boughs. I work to the sounds of croaking frogs in the spring, birdsong in the summer, and water whooshing through the pipes that run vertically in the corners. Every two or three days when the tanks run dry, we pump water up from the ground using our low-draw solar pump, and I hold my breath, watching the pipes tremble and glisten from the rumble of the water’s roar.

There are many reasons why my space floods: mechanical malfunction, equipment breakdown, and human error. The first time it happened was when the shut-off timer failed to turn off the pump. That year, it seemed everything broke, including the water pump itself. Our kids were both under the ages of five, and the cumulative damage to my office space was so bad, and my husband and I so overwhelmed, we had to close it down.

For many years after that, I wrote in the living room with a pair of headphones on, and I lit a candle to signify to my kids that, “I am not to be interrupted unless you are bleeding.” This was far from ideal. We’re talking about thirty-minute stints here, after which the house would be a mess.

When I finally got desperate enough to face the damage in the tower, everything had to go. Family and friends chipped in for new books by authors whose company I absolutely required: Kent Haruf, Leif Enger, Peter Geye; Lauren Groff, Elizabeth Strout, Louise Erdrich, Cheryl Strayed. My sister-in-law sewed me insulated curtains against the blowing cold. My husband built me a staircase so that I could access the space without having to use the outside stairs, which were constantly getting clogged with snow.

It’s heartbreaking what trying to create does to a person, even if you don’t work in a water tower.

The new space, the size of a cockpit with stunning views of the woods, allowed me to work at 4 a.m. without waking the kids, and to conduct interviews with clients during the days. My writing space became my favorite place, my income grew, my office became invaluable, and the tanks overflowed, again.

The most difficult part about the flood on that particular winter night was that that I’d spent ten years on a novel that I’d decided was just about done. My manuscript had been laid out across my desk, three-hundred-and-some-odd pages scribbled painstakingly with notes, edits, and rewrites for new scenes. This rewrite was to be the final draft before I sent it out in search of an agent. My family had lovingly pegged every one of those pages to the clothesline, hoping they would dry, and they had. But the writing on them had washed out and become illegible.

It’s heartbreaking what trying to create does to a person, even if you don’t work in a water tower. For years a writer toils in obscurity without anyone caring; we wring our hands over the right word, the best opening, the cadence of every sentence. It’s so difficult to get published, and then when you do finally land an agent and get a book deal, your novel debuts into a post-pandemic world where journalists have lost jobs, reviews are scarce, publicists overworked, and indie bookstores are having to evaluate—for both financial and health reasons—whether to host your event at all.

For those of us who create for a living, the threat of failure looms always overhead. It’s not just water that can break your spine, but criticism, ridicule, imperfection, and shame. The time it takes to create: years. The time it takes to destroy: seconds. No one who makes anything in this world is immune.

What writing under constant threat of water does is to hasten my brazenness because now, I understand that writing and publishing are two different things. Poet William Stafford says it this way: “What one has written is not to be defended or valued, but abandoned: others must decide significance and value.”

When I find something through this process of writing that’s valuable to me, I’m eager to get it out in the world because it’s safer there than sitting in my tower. The threat of water reminds me that I’m working to get published not just for recognition, and not because I’m better than other writers, but because I might say something differently, and someone might read that, and understand this particular thing that they have never understood before, and that might be of value to them.

And so I am working, always as fast as I can, to get these words out before the next flood.


A Winter’s Rime by Carol Dunbar is available now via Forge Books.

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Andy Borowitz and A. J. Jacobs on Living in the Age of Ignorance Thu, 14 Sep 2023 08:35:51 +0000

I met A. J. Jacobs in a bagel store on the Upper West Side about fifteen years ago and we’ve been pals ever since. In all that time, I’ve wanted to know one of his writing secrets: how did he manage to write a book making fun of the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically) that religious people love? When we connected to talk about my latest book, Profiles in Ignorance, I finally got up the nerve to ask him. –Andy Borowitz


A. J. Jacobs: I know that you did your research in part by finding delightfully obscure books. Can you tell us about one of your favorites?

Andy Borowitz: Although the era I cover in the book—the past fifty years or so—is relatively recent, so many books about current events that were published during that period are already out-of-print and forgotten. (This fact is somewhat depressing for those of us who write books about current events, but let’s not dwell on that.) When I stumbled on a book that seemed particularly obscure it felt like buried treasure.

I think the one that excited me the most was called The Making of a Senator: Dan Quayle. A totally unironic and highly flattering account of Quayle’s career in the United States Senate, it portrays him as a politician who is destined for greatness.

There are a couple of poignant things about this book. First, in his native Indiana, Quayle did seem like a budding right-wing superstar, but that was largely because his grandfather was a regional media magnate who guaranteed Dan reliably glowing press coverage whenever he opened his mouth. When George H.W. Bush tapped Dan as Veep and he was suddenly exposed to media not controlled by his grandpa, it was a very traumatic experience for him.

Second, the book came out in January 1989, the month Quayle was sworn in as vice president, so the publisher must have thought that he had a commercial bonanza on his hands. Surely, Dan was on the brink of becoming a wildly popular and respected national figure who’d make the book fly off the shelves. Alas, it didn’t become a bestseller like PT 109, which proves once again that Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy. (Sorry, I had to.)

If all satire has done is help you sleep better at night, it’s actually reinforced the established order that it was meant to attack.

The joke, though, is ultimately on me, because I was so overstimulated by my discovery of this book that I accidentally ordered it twice. So now I am the owner of two copies of The Making of a Senator: Dan Quayle, a book for which there is virtually no resale market.

AJJ: What is your favorite Quaylism?

AB: So hard to choose! He spewed an embarrassment of embarrassments. His most famous quote might be his mangling of the United Negro College Fund’s slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”: “When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” I’m also fond of a statement of his that seems to call into question the linear nature of time: “I’ve made good judgments in the past. I’ve made good judgments in the future.” But you really can’t do better than this one: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between parent and child.”

AJJ: I once read an essay that argued that satire is counterproductive. It serves more as a safe way to vent frustration while we stick with the status quo, and that satire usually isn’t what changes society. Do you think there’s truth to that, or is the writer of that essay just a sour humorless dumbass?

AB: I think we should be open to the possibility that the essayist is a sour humorless dumbass but still has a point. Satire, unfortunately, can lead people to the false conclusion that things must be okay if we can laugh about them. Sometimes well-intentioned readers will say to me, “Thank you for keeping me sane.” That’s a super-nice thing to say, even though I have serious doubts about their choice of sanity provider, so I’ll thank them for saying it.

But then I’ll ask them, “So what are you going to do with your sanity?” I don’t say this just to be a prick. What I mean is, now that my jokes have cheered you up, are you motivated to engage in some form of activism? Because if all satire has done is help you sleep better at night, it’s actually reinforced the established order that it was meant to attack.

There is, however, something that satire can do really well: educate. I just spoke with a couple of college students who told me that they’ve learned about recent American history by watching old “Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” clips on YouTube. I hear this kind of thing all the time. One of the reasons I wrote Profiles In Ignorance was to inform readers about historical events that they might not be aware of. Jokes can teach. That’s why they’re trying to ban them in Florida.

In The Year of Living Biblically, you satirize the idea of taking the Bible literally—and yet a lot of people who love the Bible also love your book. That’s an impressive achievement. How’d you do it?

AJJ: Well, the words of my book were dictated to me by the Lord Almighty himself, so that helped. I kid! I’m not sure how I did it, to be honest. I think one part may be that I tried to point out the wisdom in the Bible as well as the crazy parts. I tried to show that cherry-picking is okay, as long as you pick the right cherries. There are plenty of terrible cherries, like the Bible’s anti-gay passages. I say we leave those on the tree.

But there are also some good cherries about compassion and kindness and helping those on the fringes of society. So I was hoping to present a balanced satire.

AB: In Profiles in Ignorance, I target politicians of the last half-century or so, but in the book you’re working on now you go back further in time. Which of our Founding Fathers was the most ridiculous?

AJJ: I don’t think any of the Founding Fathers approached the modern level of political idiocy. They had huge moral flaws, but they weren’t dummies. Though I suppose they were ignorant of modern science and medicine. I’m thinking of Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the final draft of the Constitution. He died in 1816 because he tried to treat his urinary tract infection himself. He tried to clear the blockage by inserting a whalebone into his penis. I appreciate his can-do attitude, but it wasn’t a noble demise.

If you had to rank the dumbest moment in American history, what would it be? The dumbest politician?

AB: This is probably a symptom of our myopia as humans, but don’t we all tend to think the moment we’re living through is the dumbest? When you read Mark Twain venting about the politicians of his era, you get the sense that he didn’t think the bar could fall any lower. Same with H.L. Mencken writing about Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address—he declared that there had never been a bigger dolt in the annals of history. I’m like, just you wait, H.L.

The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a real inflection point in what I call the Age of Ignorance.

The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a real inflection point in what I call the Age of Ignorance. The Gipper is now routinely deified as a great leader and statesman—even by Democrats—a reputation that I think is totally unearned. This is a man who didn’t know that South America was composed of different countries, and who thought that trees were more lethal polluters than cars. When he made a campaign appearance at Claremont College in California, students tacked a sign to a tree that read, “Chop Me Down Before I Kill Again.”

Of course, Reagan has benefited greatly from comparisons with our most recent ex-president, who stared directly at an eclipse with no sunglasses on and told the country that you could cure COVID by ingesting bleach. Having said that, I don’t think Donald J. Trump is the dumbest politician of our current era. There are too many other formidable contenders.

For me, the honors would have to go to either Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene. They’re both incredible numbskulls, and here’s the twist…they can’t stand each other! They’ve been seen openly cussing each other out on the floor of the House. This is very much an “Alien vs. Predator” situation: hard to know who to root for.

But I guess I have a soft spot for Marge, owing to her famous comment about Jewish space lasers. I’m flattered that she thinks I could operate a space laser. I can barely mute myself on Zoom. And if ever there was a group of people who could have used space lasers throughout their history, it’s the Jews. Space lasers would have come in real handy when we were being chased by the Gazpacho.


Profiles in Ignorance: How America's Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber - Borowitz, Andy

Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber by Andy Borowitz is available via Avid Reader Press.

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