Category Archives: Essays

Christopher Lee

The Killing Time

Our friend Ann Louise Bardach interviewed Christopher Lee for Los Angeles’s WET magazine in 1981. We post it with her permission here in memorium.


Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. During WWII, he served in the British Royal Air Force in some intelligence capacity, the details of which he says he would rather not discuss. After the War, Lee decided to try acting. He appeared in his first film in 1949 and starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Over the next decade, he became a fixture in the horror genre, often outclassing the gory potboilers in which he starred. In person, he’s quite tall but not spooky at all.

A.L. Bardach chats with Lee about his war years, which proved an odd sort of inspiration to his future career. Continue reading

The Goats: A Middle Eastern Pastoral

By Joanna Chen

It’s that time of year. The goats are here again. They’re back with their shepherds, munching their way along the lower slopes below the forest that surrounds the village where I live. They have all the time in the world, wandering around from slope to slope leading down to the main road. They walk slowly along, dipping down to the low-growing bushes and the wild oregano, raising their necks to branches that crackle when bitten through.

These are the goats that belong to the Bedouin shepherds and they’ll be here through the long summer that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing the forest near my house with them again. They remind me that there is a different pace of life. Continue reading

Dickstein_Morris bw

What Really Happened: Writing a Memoir

By Morris Dickstein

In recent years, whenever someone asked me what I was working on, I would hesitate a moment. “A memoir,” I’d say, never quite sure of the reaction I’d get. Friends would perk up, perhaps pleased that I was doing something different, “creative” rather than critical. I could see they were curious to learn more about me. Other reactions were more skeptical, though the skeptics were usually too polite to object directly. Someone I knew in passing was less restrained: “What do you have to write about?” It was rude but there were times I agreed with him. Too many people were publishing memoirs: you could say there was a glut in the market. After all, what were my credentials for writing about myself? I hadn’t served as secretary of state, committed high crimes or misdemeanors, or found a cure for cancer. From a lifetime of teaching and writing, I couldn’t report on titanic battles with addiction or any spectacular breakdowns. It’s true that I had lived in interesting times, that accursed fate, but I was an intellectual, part of that rarefied breed, awash in a medium of arguments and ideas.

Though I’d been fortunate in my teachers and colleagues, I’d rarely hobnobbed with celebrities or journeyed to exotic places. London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem – did they count? The Jewish immigrant culture from which I sprang had often, perhaps too often, been written about. Still, I had a story I wanted to tell — many stories, in fact — about a disappearing world I was eager recapture, a personal past still vibrantly alive for me, one that would engage readers if I could bring it to life for them. Some people I know plow straight ahead, never looking back; for them the past is an ash heap, memory an indulgence. The opposite has always held true for me: even when I was young, the accumulating past was a magnet, a flourishing landscape of memory that drew me in, partly as a way to understand the idiosyncratic person I’d become. It was hardly an accident that I was attracted to psychoanalysis and had spent years on the couch, talking my way through an interminable flow of memories and feelings.

Thanks to this wellspring of emotion bubbling up from earlier times, bits of my life would often surface in whatever writing I did. Reviewing a novel by Bernard Malamud triggered recollections of my father’s virtual indenture to his small dry goods store. Composing eulogies of departed teachers or friends, of course, led me to revisit the times and scenes I’d known with them. When I wrote a book about the 1960s, an era that idealized openness and first-person witness (“let it all hang out,” the mantra went), I dipped inevitably into my own experiences; the era had lit me up and changed my life. Better still, whenever the writing turned more personal I seemed to shift into another gear; I felt empowered, as if tapping into a sensitive region of the brain. I could sense the emotional temperature rising, the prose turning tighter, more incandescent. As I got older I also felt the urge to leave something behind, some of the sentient life that burned brightly in me. Would it simply be an album of memories, a sheaf of anecdotes, or would it carry a freight of meaning for others as well? Would it turn slack with factual recollection or glow with remembered incident and feeling? That challenge confronts any writer but perhaps the autobiographical writer most of all. A memoir, after all, is a form of licensed self-absorption — that’s part of what’s exciting about it for a writer. But how do you make it matter to other people, make it seriously real to them? There are lazy options I had no desire to take. At a time when the lines between private and public seem almost obliterated, for instance, writers are tempted to traffic in the lurid, the grossly unedifying, either to attract attention or simply to connect viscerally with readers. Losing any normal sense of shame, they take a tabloid view of their own lives, flaunting what should remain intimate and private.

Better writers mask such revelations, using fiction to expose yet also to camouflage their emotional terrain. My own memoir, Why Not Say What Happened, actually began as an idea for a novel, not a straight autobiography. Quite miraculously, it arrived in a single bolt of inspiration one morning in the unguarded time between waking up and getting out of bed, a delicious interval that invites fantasy and free association. In the early sixties, as an unhappy grad student in English at Yale, I was offered a fellowship to spend a year in Cambridge, England, working up a subject for a thesis. A wonderful idea: blessedly free time after years of course assignments, term papers, academic pressure. From a distance, venerable and historic Cambridge, Gothic yet pastoral Cambridge, looked like paradise, and in some ways it was. I relished the unstructured stretches of time to read widely; I also worked hard at breaking into a surprisingly different culture, whose social codes I could never quite crack. But much of the time I was miserable: homesick, adrift in a cold, wet climate, missing the girl I had left behind. The novel I imagined in that morning reverie would center on the story of that year abroad, with flashbacks and foreshadowings that evoked other phases of my life — the Jewish childhood in a large, boisterous extended family, the religious education I sometimes loved and sometimes rejected, the intellectual awakening I experienced as an undergraduate, the anxieties that sometimes had beset me earlier but emerged in force during that fretful English year.

As the novel took shape in my mind, it was even clear where it might begin. I was haunted by a creepy incident that played out the day I departed for Cambridge in October 1963. Driving on the Grand Central Parkway, just past LaGuardia Airport, I caught sight in my rear-view mirror of a huge car, a stretch limo or Lincoln Continental, rearing up, leaping the divider, and bearing down on a VW bug, some hundred yards behind me. I had passed through the spot not ten seconds earlier. I looked on in horror as the smaller car veered wildly from side to side to avoid getting crushed. Then, as the road curved, I lost sight of the scene, so brief and eerie that I wondered if I’d imagined it. A few hours later I boarded a plane for England and never found out what actually happened that day on the road. This open-ended memory, framed in the mirror like a movie clip, became an emblem of my troubled feelings all that year, the collision course from which the novel could set out.

I was trying to finish another book, long in the making, but every so often I’d turn this unwritten novel over in my mind, tinker with assorted plans for it. But once I was free to write the book I had a solid hunch it would never come off. My stabs at writing fiction in my 20s and 30s had usually petered out. My doubts grew as I thought back to distant England in 1963 and 1964, watching movies made on location then, wondering whether I could bring that distant, somewhat alien world to life. Writing it as fiction would offer me the opportunity to invent, to enhance or embroider whatever I remembered, but could I make it all fully present? My reverence for the alchemy of fiction might serve to disable me. If I hewed closely to my recollections of what really happened, I might as well come clean and cast it as a memoir. I’d still have to make it a believable world, alive on the page, but I could at least count on the unspoken contract with the reader, a bond of trust that I’d stay close to the facts according to my own lights. If my literary gifts were not really suited to fiction, they could yet provide all I needed for decent autobiographical writing.

I still had to fashion a plot, grasp the narrative arc of at least part of my life. I would also want to probe what attracted me so strongly to the past. A peculiar, deeply irrational moment stuck in my mind and I decided it might serve as a prologue. Instead of the impending crash that I’d glimpsed on the highway, I would lead off with a scene toward the end of my grad school years in New Haven. Once, on an aimless walk, I knocked on the door of a seemingly empty place where I’d once lived, got no response, yet felt compelled to walk right in and wander around, though others were then clearly living there. As an interloper, I thought I might be assaulted at any moment. Trembling with emotion — where did it come from? — I was acting on an impulse I couldn’t resist, as if trespassing upon my own earlier world.

As I conjured up this feverish moment of more than forty years back, it set off a train of memories of that whole period, just before the year in Cambridge, when I was on my own for the first time. From there I could reach back to my parents’ marriage and my own childhood, to college adventures and the travels that followed, just as I had once imagined doing in the novel. Now the book unexpectedly began writing itself, telling me where it wanted to go, even where it had to end. I still needed to sort out what mattered only to me from what might also trigger recognition in others. “Follow the emotion,” a friend advised. If I cared enough, probed deeply enough, others would care as well. “My heart laid bare,” so Baudelaire described it. As a writer and critic, as a teacher, I’d also have to include the life of the mind, the books I’d read, the poetry I loved, the ideas that turned me on. But I felt it should not be a largely intellectual biography, an essay in cultural history, like those that some of my admired mentors had written. It had to be personal as well, something ripped from the gut. I needed to unburden or debrief myself, for there were moments and milestones weighing upon me. Above all I had to create myself as a character, not so different from a fictional narrator, and bring the spark of life to the sketches I drew of the people around me. Would they prove as memorable to others as they were to me? Above all I wanted to tell stories, irresistible stories, without putting the thinking mind to sleep.

It was odd to find myself doing research not in texts but in the corners and folds of my own psyche. I soon discovered there were vexing clauses in the all-important contract to tell the truth. What about the embarrassing stuff I’d discussed with virtually no one: episodes of panic attacks and physical symptoms, years in psychotherapy and then full-scale analysis? And what about the harsh or painful memories, crucial to any three-dimensional work, which might prove upsetting to others, uncles or cousins, teachers and friends, even their children and grandchildren, people I had no wish to anguish or harm? I didn’t intend to trace my own coming of age at their expense, except where honesty demanded it.

Strangely, I took heart from Orwell’s injunction not to trust any autobiography that didn’t tell us something discreditable — he actually said “disgraceful” — about the author. If nothing else, such details would add drama to my tale, lay out conflicts that would make up for the dearth of nail-biting melodrama. I could rely on Montaigne’s justification for writing about himself – that each man’s life potentially bears the whole form of the human condition. The trick was to grapple with it honestly, wherever it led, at some risk of looking bad or foolish. I would never allow it to become a confessional debauch, but I wondered: was there too much neurosis in my memoir, or not enough? Only the reader could judge. Some discretion was inevitable but I tried hard to avoid turning it into censorship. It took some inflation of ego to think I was worth writing about, but also a willingness to be exposed, to be vulnerable. Part of the story would be the reversals, the disappointments and serious losses, though surely Orwell exaggerated when he said, “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Whatever those setbacks were, I’d have the dubious pleasure of living through them again, savoring some past experiences, regretting others, revisiting indelible moments and trying hard to make sense of them at last.

Morris Dickstein’s memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, has just come out from Liveright, along with a new edition of his cultural history of the 1960s, Gates of Eden. His previous books include Leopards in the Temple (2002), A Mirror in the Roadway (2005), and Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009).

Lead photo by Nancy Crampton.


Steven Turville image

A Song in Two Voices

Image: Steven Turville

By Joanna Chen

The only sure thing on polling day in Israel this year was the holiday atmosphere. Even my village joined in, with a cozy open-air market that was just being set up at the entrance as we walked by that morning on our way to the polling station. Organic vegetables, gold jewellery, scarves from India, hand-painted wooden toys, all made locally. Polling day doubles as family day, as the grown-up kids throng home to vote, walking along with their parents to the voting hall. One of our daughters is still registered in the village, and she joins us on our stroll. We take the dogs, and they run ahead, happy we are all together today. Only my son, who is too young to vote, seems low-spirited this morning. He walks a little ahead of us, head down, in sandals and a dirty t-shirt. We go early, because we have two invitations to see friends today. It’s a holiday, after all. Continue reading



Image: National Geographic photographer Steve Winter

By Deanne Stillman

An animal whose name, whose type I should say, is used to malign women of a certain age, is now holed up in a home in Los Feliz. That is to say a cougar, aka a mountain lion, has found refuge in a dwelling for humans who live near Griffith Park, his most favored address, according to his tracking collar.

As this story broke, many questions came to mind. Why did P22 as he is known decide to spend time in a crawl space in a home on the 2700 block of Glendower Avenue? Did he feel comfortable there? Was he drawn to the three housecats who live there, members of his tribe, distant though they may be, in the area that is his (for he is one of the last of his kind in the region called Los Angeles and that is why he is tracked)? Has it come to this – he found his family, in, yes, a house? As officials from various agencies closed in, as newsfolk hovered and said “A very large houseguest is in the neighborhood” and other things of that nature, I wondered if he was making some kind of stand, a last one (I hoped not, as he was prodded and poked and blasted with bean bags and tennis balls – tactics which have moved “troublesome” mountain lions away from people in the past), and there was an undercurrent of fear and bloodlust, as there always is when a wild thing is cornered. Would he leap out from the crawl space and attack somebody? Would there then be a killer on the loose? Would he have to be taken out? Continue reading


In Every City, A Forest

Image: Felix Kiessling

By Joanna Chen

The fact that a Lufthansa plane had crashed the day before I flew to Berlin did not deter me in the least. El-Al is safer, a neighbor told me, referring to Israel’s national airline. Their security is better, she said. On my walk to the forest the morning of my flight, a friend made a face when I said I was flying Lufthansa. “Oh well,” she said, realizing I really was going. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.”

I’ve been to Berlin several times in the past few years. Last autumn I got on the plane with hand luggage only – a pair of flip-flops, my laptop and a couple of swirly summer skirts. My dismayed partner, accustomed to my dubious packing talents, handed me his sweater and bought me an umbrella when we met up at Berlin’s Tegel airport. Continue reading

terry pratchett

Death and the Author: A Brief Commemoration of Terry Pratchett

By Andrew M. Butler

By now, of course, Death is almost an old friend. You’ll know him when you see him—tall chap, skeletal, scythe, black cape, a BOOMING VOICE, rides a pale horse called Binky… and he’s a recurring character in virtually all of the Discworld novels written by Sir Terry Pratchett, who has died at home on March 12 2015 from a chest infection caused by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In an early volume, Mort (1987), Death moves from cameo to secondary lead, perhaps even antagonist, as he takes young Mort on as an apprentice. Whilst Mort struggles to carry on the work, Death finds work as a short order cook in a tavern and begins to get to know living people. The novel echoes earlier works featuring Death—Alberto Casella’s play Death Takes a Holiday (1924) and the films The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) and Love and Death (Woody Allen, 1975)—but it is not just a parody: it explores the nature of work. A few books later, in Reaper Man (1991), Death is made redundant and seeks work on a farm as an odd-job man, only to find his traditional scything skills are threatened by threshing machines. The novel is a comedy, but it is also about stuff. Continue reading


Another Perspective on Goshen

By Faheem Haider

SOME 20 YEARS AGO, while living in a small village near Goshen, New York, I got my first driver’s license at the Orange County Government Center, the Paul Rudolph–designed Brutalist marvel of concrete blocks outfitting the space around me, tracking my every step. Back then, I didn’t know very much about the provenance of the building, but I thought it a weirdly lovely structure left alone in a staid Victorian village. Since then, after many years away and a move back home, I’ve visited the “Rudolph building” to get other documents and a number of passports. Each time, I entered the building through an uncouth side entrance off a pedestrian parking lot. Some part of the dingy interior was always cordoned off, and buckets lined up in multiple rows to catch the sedimented leakage. Continue reading

sarah mesle

What I’ve Been Reading

Sarah Mesle is LARB’s Senior Humanities Editor. The following is a list of books and essays she’s lately read — some recommended by friends, some picked randomly from the LARB book room; some new, some older. Her taste in novels, particularly when it comes to recreational reading, skews towards the popular and plot-driven (most often Young Adult); in essays, she prefers the punchy and polemic.


Hild, by Niccola Griffith, is slow, and it is demanding: it asks more from its reader than I’m usually willing to give at the end of a long day. It’s the fictional story of the real St. Hilda, who lived in England in the sixth century; it starts when she is three and spins out several hundred pages of lived detail. I just looked at the author’s website and the list of characters is four pages long, single-spaced. It includes entries such as “Cynan: cousin of Gwrast, lord of the Bryneich, one of Hild’s hounds” and “Swefred: chief swordman of Mulstanton, occasional lyre player.”

Does this sound dreadful? It’s so good. Lush, imaginative, raw; it’s a little like if you took the keen problem-solving satisfactions of Ender’s Game and combined them with the scene in Little House in the Big Woods when Pa makes the bullets (think about the glistening lead, and how easy it would be to burn your fingers!). The book is like that; it’s also, at times, super sexy, and at times (sometimes the same times) gut wrenching. Please read it so we can make references to each other about the gut-eating pigs of Lindsey.


Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Maggie Stiefvater: I’ve praised Maggie Stiefvater in these pages before, and I still think she’s on the shortlist of most interesting and ambitious YA authors writing today. Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third installment in her Raven Boys cycle, came out last fall and I’d been hoarding it as a treat for myself: it was every bit as delicious as I’d hoped. Stiefvater takes boyhood seriously and family seriously; her minor characters sparkle (I particularly love a lanky rural farmer, subject to a curse, who speaks ENTIRELY IN ALL CAPS; he seemed to me like the opposite of Owen Meany). What’s best here, though, is Stiefvater’s deft rendering of how love flows through different kind of friendships; the characters here don’t so much partner off as group and regroup, creating different dynamics and pleasures. They are all in love with each other; I’m a little in love with all of them.


If you are looking for a good 19c novel, you might consider The Linwoods (1835)! I recently learned that a friend is reading it, which is so exciting, because the number of people I know who have read it is rapidly approaching ten people! Anyway, lots more of us should read it. It’s by Lydia Maria Sedgwick, who is more famous for Hope Leslie, which is also good, but The Linwoods takes place during the American revolution and features some really amazing mystical characters and a prison break scene, and also, it was Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite.


Academe’s Willful Ignorance of African Literature, by Aaron Bady: Aaron Bady, a regular contributor to The New Inquiry as well as other sites, is often a source for important social critique. This week, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he offers a particularly forceful essay, significant in several respects: its lucid discussion of the attention Literature departments pay (and often don’t pay) to African literature is compelling on its own terms, and is also an avenue towards grappling with the inherent tensions between the politics and the practice of the contemporary university. The academic marketplace is so precarious these days that few scholars, of any rank, are willing to engage in this kind of open debate; regardless of your take on this particular issue, Bady willingness to collegially but firmly disagree is something we should all admire.

Every now and again, people declare that African literature has arrived, or is arriving, or will arrive soon. It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach.

It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.


To celebrate a recent special issue of the journal GLQ, “On the Visceral,” editors Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Sharon P. Holland, and Marcia Ochoa have released a series of “Bocados,” or “mouthfuls.” All of these were pleasures, but two stood out to me. First, a conversation featuring the Toronto-based porn artist Dirtysurface, who discusses his work with soulfulness, humor, and intelligence. Second, and I’m not sure how to express my excitement about this: Donna Haraway writes about feeding her dogs. Donna Haraway! DOGS! All I want is more really serious scholars writing intently about their pets.


Letter of Recommendation: LaCroix Sparkling Water, Mary H.K. Choi: LaCroix sparkling water is a key part of my pedagogy: I call it “lady professor water,” in honor of my wonderful dissertation director, who offered hers to me generously, and buy at least one case at the start of every semester. LaCroix doesn’t actually taste good — it tastes sort of like nothing, which is not unpleasant — so regularly drinking it in my classes helps convey the sort of mystique I like to cultivate. I want my students to think I understand their world but that they don’t understand mine — that I have sophisticated tastes, for instance my taste for the blandness of LaCroix, too subtle for them to appreciate without consistent ongoing effort. (I also like to point out to my students that I’m doing this to them: they are very nice about it.) Anyway, Choi’s relationship to LaCroix is different than mine, but I was very happy to see her sing the praises of this wonderful beverage.

My initial reluctance was partly due to the cans’ hideousness. The first time I drank LaCroix, I half expected it to be filled with self-tanner. Or Axe body spray. The cans look somehow simultaneously obnoxious and earnest, as if they’re trying to appeal to Canadian ravers or the sort of people who have septum piercings and shop at Desigual. With its bootleg Van Gogh swirls and the not-quite Yves Klein blue logo, LaCroix would look right at home nestled in a neoprene koozie screen-printed to look like an acid-washed denim jacket. Everything about the can suggests trashy fun.


Lisa Duggan’s recent blog post on her relationship to queerness, “Escape Velocity,” is lovely and helpful — a great post to read if you teach or study queer theory, but also just a clear and honest piece of writing about the different personal needs our sexuality can help fulfill. Like Hild and Blue Lily, Lily Blue, really, this is writing about our how our needs surpass easy categories.

I didn’t come to lesbianism via the standard 1970s coming out narrative. I never experienced a suppressed inner desire for women that finally found expression, both personal and political. I hit on lesbianism as an exit strategy, an escape narrative, a way not to repeat my mother’s life, my own childhood domestic confinement. I experienced gender dysphoria in that femininity felt like a trap, but I liked the clothes a lot. At first I tried the then currently fashionable androgyny, in flannel shirts and boots. But I left my flannel shirts unbuttoned below the décolletage, and felt desire for creatures with many so-called masculine features. I was thrilled to discover that I could find thrillingly sexy masculine partners who could not, or would not, reproduce the gendered norms of domesticity and sociality. I could wear skirts without regrets. In that time and place, queer life appeared to me as a free zone, a place for experimentation and innovation in the forms of gender, intimacy and social life, a landscape for desire as yet uncolonized by the lifelong monogamy of the couple form legally enshrined in wedlock.


Not reading, but: I wanted to really love Carly Rae Jepson’s new song, but in fact the pop song I can’t turn off this week is BØRNS Seeing Stars (it’s not new, but I just heard it).

I had not seen a new post on WorstCats for quite some time and somehow stumbled on it again this week: update that it is still awesome.


Finally, Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard. This book, which I only mention because it debuted mysteriously at number one on the NYT Bestseller list (???), is not one I’d recommend reading. But it was entertainingly dialed-up and rollicking, with crazy rock-exploding set pieces and strange politics, sort of like the YA version of Jupiter Ascending, a movie I quite enjoyed. If the Wachowski’s make a movie version of Red Queen then you should definitely go, especially if they cast Channing Tatum (the book is actually better if you imagine the lead dude being played by Channing Tatum — though, what’s not).


Rereading I Am the Messenger

By Angela Yuen

I Am the Messenger, by Marcus Zusak, is an old book for me because I have held it and absorbed it so many times. Readers can always memorize the feelings of certain books in their hands, I think. Our favorite books, the ones that we keep and reread, have a sort of battered heft to them. Some books have older souls, I tell my friends, and they agree. The souls of books are always a joint effort; one part author, one part reader, and the old ones are the books we keep giving part of ourselves to.

I tend to reread books around the Winter and New Year season, I’ve noticed. It’s a combination of the weather and the people, old relatives and warm houses. I like the comforting repetitiveness of rereading books, though many people tell me it retracts from the experience because everything in the story is already known. Then again, the story of Ed Kennedy, the underage cabdriver in Messenger, is the sort of story that leaves you wondering how much you really know.  Continue reading