Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): There’s an unsettling symmetry to Cleanness, Garth Greenwell’s second book, which works less as a novel than as a series of interlinked stories about a gay American teaching English and roving the hookup apps in Sofia, Bulgaria. The first chapter finds the unnamed narrator sympathetically struggling to advise a closeted student; the last one finds him on an ill-advised night out with some new graduates, his gaze hungry, his hands lingering too long on one of the boys’ flexed bicep, or falling “errantly” on his crotch. In the second chapter, he plays the submissive in an assignation with a stranger—and only narrowly escapes when it gets out of hand; in the penultimate one, he dominates another new lover, testing his own capacity for sexual cruelty. It makes for a compelling investigation of desire: where it cleaves to and from who we “are,” how we account for its peculiar polarities, the ways it can take us both closer to and further from what we want. Many of the blurbs on the back of the book speak to Greenwell’s talent for writing about sex (Sheila Heti: “I can think of few contemporary authors who bring as much reality and honesty to the description of sex. Most American literature seems neutered by comparison.”) And it’s true. I can’t remember the last thing I read where the sex scenes themselves were not just an irreducible plot point in themselves (or worse, seasoning), but rather, wholly explored as a site of narrative: The aforementioned penultimate chapter is particularly remarkable for how it tells the story of the relationship to come from within an extended, play-by-play of their first sexual encounter. Still, I think in some ways, Greenwell’s writing about love is the book’s anchor. The middle chapters of the book, grouped in a section titled “Loving R.,” vividly conjures the relief of love. The before and after of love—what happens when the narrator is once again without it, once again an agent primarily of his desire—constitutes the primary movement of this somewhat quiet book. The emotional clarity and elegance of the writing, which sometimes called to mind Rachel Cusk, carries the book through its more subtle movements.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): Last weekend was a chores weekend for me, and to stay entertained while cleaning I began listening to “Power Trip,” the first season of Cover Story, an investigative podcast from New York Magazine. Told in nine episodes, the series looks at the underground world of psychedelic therapy. The podcast hosts—Lily Kay Ross with iO Tillet Wright in Part I and David Nickles in Part II—are terrific, and their involvement in this investigative work is personal: they each have sought healing for trauma through psychedelics. At first motivated by the possibilities such powerful drugs offer for individual and societal transformation, the hosts and the interviewees have all experienced harm within unregulated therapeutic spaces and dismissals of that harm at all levels of leadership and community. The discussions are nuanced and honest; participants are open about the internal and external pressure they have felt to avoid jeopardizing public perception and the success of clinical trials, and they are driven by care for each other and for those considering becoming involved. As the concept of psychedelics-as-medicine becomes increasingly accepted and mainstream, this is an important addition to the conversation.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Power, fortune, family, mythmaking—if you like reading books about a combination of these things and it would sweeten the pot if the book was described as a “literary puzzle,” check out Trust by Hernan Diaz, out next week.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The Wobblies, Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird’s brilliant documentary on the Industrial Workers of the World—the greatest of all our native-born radical movements—has been restored and is being re-released today, in time for May Day. It’s showing in New York at Metrograph and the New Plaza Cinema and will soon be available nationwide. If you see only one radical film this year—or, I’ll go further, only one documentary—this should be it.
The Wobblies was honored last year by the Library of Congress for its lasting artistic and historical value, and if ever a film on an episode in radical history deserved this honor it’s this one. Not only is it a masterpiece of left-wing cinema, it is also a model of oral history. The directors chose to limit the voiceover narration to a minimum, preferring instead to have now-elderly former Wobs tell their personal experiences of the union’s heyday from its founding in 1905 until it was crushed in 1917-18. As a result, we hear firsthand accounts, filmed in 1976 and 1977, of men and women who took part in the great Lawrence strike of 1912 and in the IWW’s free speech campaigns, who rode the rails and worked the fields. Because the filmmakers chose to tell the story in this way, some moments in the union’s history are missing, but they are more than made up for by the insights, the enthusiasm, the joy, and the songs for which the IWW were so famous, all in the voices and varied accents of former Wobblies for whom the IWW was once a living thing that held out hope for the destruction of capitalism.
The IWW’s ideology was vague: it called for all workers to join the One Big Union, which would one day call a general strike that would bring capital to its knees. What would follow was unclear, but it was enough to lead to a repression of the Wobs that would only be equaled in the 60s and 70s in the government’s campaign against the Black Panthers. For the men and women in The Wobblies, however difficult the strikes and struggles were, they were all worth it, and their memory was a lasting source of pride.
Those interested in reading about the Wobblies should pick up two books: Melvyn Dubofsky’s classic We Shall Be All is far and away the best and most judicious account of the IWW’s rise and fall. My own I’ll Forget it When I Die! is a detailed and accessible account of one of the darkest moments in American labor history, the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, when 1,200 striking Arizona copper miners and their supporters were rounded up, loaded in boxcars and dumped in the New Mexico desert. The Wobs led the strike that served as the pretext for the deportation, and writing the book reinforced a love for the IWW I first felt over 50 years ago when I read Mel Dubofsky’s book.
As a bonus recommendation: What’s lovely about A.B. Zax’s Hello, Bookstore—a documentary opening today at Film Forum on The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts—is that for most of its length it avoids what we’ve come to expect in films about booksellers. However justified, hearing the constant lamentations on the end of reading or the end of buying print books or the horrors of Amazon has become a bore. Hello, Bookstore is about something else, something actually wonderful. It’s about the eponymous bookstore’s owner, Matt Tannenbaum, a man who loves books, who loves sharing his love of books, and who loves to read and quote from what he’s reading and what he’s read.
Tannenbaum bought the bookstore as a 30-year-old in 1976, but not once does he complain about the awful effects of the passage of time in his trade. He’s someone who does what he loves: he talks to people, he reads, and occasionally he makes some money selling his wares. He knows his customers, and even those he doesn’t know are made to feel he does.
The film is a reminder of just how awful the early days of Covid were, when Tannenbaum wouldn’t allow people in to browse or even pay for books they’d ordered or requested. The financial impact is devastating, but this transplanted New York Jew (he tells of his first sighting of a moose after moving to the Berkshires and wondering if Moose eat Jews) becomes the town’s George Bailey. His cashbox all but empty, he puts out an appeal to save The Bookstore and his GoFund Me drive saves him and his store.
As in the Capra film, the relief and happiness he feels is so sincere, so real, that we can’t help but share in it.
Before you go: Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Maia Ipp and filmmaker Katz Tepper (who participated in a recent JC event) are the guests on a brand new episode of the podcast Disloyal, discussing Tepper’s film Roasted Cockroach for Sale. Listen to the podcast here!
Also, on May 18th, JC Senior Editor Ari Brostoff is participating in the Triply Canopy live event “Executive Fiction” along with Richard Beck and Sean McCann; they will be discussing the novels Bill and Hillary Clinton have co-authored with, respectively, James Patterson and Louise Penny. The event is free to attend in Lower Manhattan or to livestream. Sign up here!