Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the second chapter from the novel Alena by Rachel Pastan, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“Sometimes a book that is wonderful and well-told and riveting is overlooked. I believe this is the case with Rachel Pastan’s Alena. This novel, about the art world and its ghosts, came out quietly to great reviews last year, was called “a brilliant takedown of the self-serious art world” by Alex Kuczynski in the Times Book Review, and was published in paperback earlier this year. Inspired by the ghost-filled mega-bestseller of its day, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan’s ode tells the story of a young art curator who takes a position at a small Cape Cod art museum that is left mysteriously vacant by her predecessor, a woman named Alena who has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Pastan trades the aristocracy of manor house for the aristocracy of the art world, but keeps all the hauntednesss one expects to find oozing from a haunted house’s drafts and flues. In this chapter, we meet our narrator, as she works to make art her life, and we see a glimpse of the fraught future she has in store.”
One of the most dizzying of these effects is the dominance of circles. Ringed or round connoted nature tamed. The vegetables that survived the cleansing were united by two qualities. They were round and cute: button mushrooms, olives, cherry tomatoes, pearl onions, peas, invincible iceberg. (Celery, long and tubular, made it through, too, I think because it is so neat. And so crisp and orderly.) As food production was mechanized, there followed a march of finished foods made round: cocktail franks, meatballs, cheese wheels, cheese balls, onion rings, sherbet rolls and pale, melted fondue, bubbling in small round pots.
Rachel Laudan, a food historian and author of the 2013 book ‘‘Cuisine and Empire,’’ thinks that behind the Betty Crocker recipe box lurks the Cold War — that these glossy cards were another theater for the standoff between socialism and capitalism, a version of the message that ‘‘abundance was something to be celebrated.’’ Surely the lush profusions on each card stand in diametric opposition to the Soviet aesthetic of the day, with its homemade loaves of dark bread, its communes and caps and kvass.
Every Sunday as he entered the church where his father, Theodorus, preached, Vincent van Gogh passed a gravestone marked VINCENT VAN GOGH.
The artist’s brother Vincent was born, and died, March 30, 1852. The artist was born March 30, 1853. I remember being sixteen years old in the Toledo Museum of Art, staring at his painting Houses at Auvers, when I heard a museum guide say this. Whether the knowledge affected van Gogh—that he shared both his name and birthday with a dead sibling—remains unknown, the guide said.
“Does anyone have any questions?” he asked.
My mind filled with loud, hurried thoughts and just as suddenly emptied, like a flock of birds scattering from a field.
I was sixteen, the age Jeanne would always be.
-From an essay at The Believer by Jeannie Vanasco, about the heavy psychic burden of her “necronym,” the name she was given in memory of the daughter her father had lost, and whose presence she always felt.
It was an interesting microcosm of adapted culture and could be really inspiring. (Inspiring maybe because I’m a nerd and was so bored I had to do something with my own brain.) People will figure out a way to amuse themselves, to connect, to re-frame, to reconcile, to make a home in the most unlikely of places. I may have laughed more, and harder, there than anytime in my life. (Also, cried. Also, raged.) The process of the whole thing (according to Viktor Frankl) follows the stages of grief. It was fascinating to watch that go down over and over with new arrivals. Once you reach surrender, there is some psychological space. And for the people who had access, there were really interesting shifts of perspectives and growth.
-At The Weeklings, Sean Beaudoin interviewed ex-convict, prison reform activist and author Meg Worden about the twenty-three months she served at Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas, for transporting 5,000 ecstasy pills from New York to Missouri–an experience she says wasn’t entirely unlike what is depicted on “Orange is the New Black.”
Baijiu, which is typically bottled between 100 and 120 proof (compared to roughly 90 proof for whiskey), is fermented in mud pits or jars buried underground, distilled, and aged in clay vessels. The drink is often divided into four different “fragrance” categories: sauce (as in soy), rice, light, and strong. In its best iterations the flavor notes range from smoky, not unlike mescal, to fruitcake, like sherry-cask-aged whiskey. Mike and Eric are novice baijiu drinkers, and our first taste does not bode well. While I find the shot to be surprisingly smooth and fruity, at least as far as baijiu goes, I notice a grimace on Mike’s face. I can tell he’s struggling for something to say. “It’s got a pine-nut thing going on,” is all he musters.
—Mitch Moxley, writing in California Sunday magazine about baijiu, China’s national drink. Made from sorghum, this clear white spirit lubricates social gatherings and facilitates business, and few Americans have heard it. Those who have tasted it rarely want more, though businesses in both China and the U.S. are trying to change that.
Johnny was more honest than most about his salvation. Other teens said they’d felt so lost in the secular world that they’d attempted suicide. When pressed for details, they produced accounts of the angry boredom of being sixteen in the suburbs: “attempted suicide” meant driving too fast, going for a too-difficult dive, getting dangerously drunk on dad’s Jack Daniel’s. One boy told me had resolved to strangle himself and would have, too, had not Jesus invisibly pulled the boy’s hands from his Adam’s apple. For Johnny there had been no special signs, no spiritual lows. It was simple as this: he was on a ski trip, and Jesus got him—shouldered into Johnny’s heart and said, “You’re mine, buddy.” It felt “wicked awesome,” better than eight girls in a Hummer all at the same time.
– Jeff Sharlet, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on a day spent with the sexually pure teens of Battlecry Honor Academy in Garden Valley, Texas — where he learns that renouncing your sins doesn’t mean redacting their memories.
Three months ago, Patrick Hardison’s face belonged to someone else—a young Brooklyn bike mechanic named David Rodebaugh. Writing for New York magazine, Steve Fishman tells the story of the most extensive face transplant yet performed, including the entire scalp, ears, and eyelids, and the two men involved (Rodebaugh was killed in a bike accident and Hardison lost most of his face in a fire 14 years ago). The entire piece is deeply compelling and raises interesting questions, like how a man’s children can adjust to a father emerging from surgery with a new face:
The next step in Hardison’s recovery was to reintroduce himself to his five kids, his mother, sister, brother, and Chrissi. It was the kids he worried about most. Nine weeks after the operation, on October 8, they walked tentatively into his hospital room. Hardison bounded toward them with a surprisingly quick step. His face was slowly healing, but the rest of him was fit, almost athletic. Hardison hugged each one fiercely, grabbed tissues to wipe the tears that seeped out from under his new eyelids.
The youngest especially, the 10- and 11-year-old boys, put on brave faces. “No matter how big of a medical miracle it may be, that doesn’t make it comfortable for his kids,” said Chrissi. “It’s still having to adjust to someone else’s face on his body.” After all, a face is more than a face. It’s an identity, a signal to the world of who a person is. By four months of age, infants’ brains recognize faces at nearly an adult level—especially the faces that belong to their parents. The younger boys touched his hair, now a half-inch long. One of the boys joked that he’d buy his dad earrings for his pierced ears. “Hell, no,” said Hardison. It was reassuring to hear his response, so typical of their dad. Still, they wanted to recognize him, to know him. “When I see his face, I want to memorize it, so the next time I see him, I know it’s my dad,” said one son.