Photo by Alfonso Jimenez

Women We Read This Week

Brooke Jarvis’ “The Messengers” in Pacific Standard

In the latest issue of Pacific Standard, Brooke Jarvis writes about a photographer and filmmaker who’s spent years confronting a difficult question: How do we get people to care about the environment? Or is the problem that some of us look away because we already care too much? Here’s Jarvis on the young albatrosses of Midway Island, the subject of much of the photographer’s work:

Before the teenaged birds can take flight for the first time they must literally purge their infancy, vomiting up the undigested remains of the food that their parents regurgitated into their mouths over the months of their growth. That means squid beaks, bits of wood or debris, and, increasingly, plastic: toothbrushes, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, indeterminate sun-bleached fragments—whatever their dedicated parents innocently collected from the sprawling ocean gyre that has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Unburdened, the young birds take long, running starts and rise above the waves, into adulthood.

But not all of them. Each year tens of thousands, it’s estimated, remain behind. They try to purge, dry-heaving desperately, but they can’t get the plastic out and so cannot fly away; cannot search for food. Some die from stomach punctures. Others slowly starve, weak and weighted down, their bellies full but empty of anything to nourish them. Eventually they can barely lift their heads, but they still open and close their beaks, as though trying to retch. At last they lie still. Their bodies litter the ground. Some wash broken in the waves, their great wings trailing behind them. In time their flesh decomposes and their feathers blow away in the wind. In small, colorful piles where their stomachs once were, the plastic remains.

The story, combined with images of dead and dying birds, is beautiful and thought-provoking.


Jill Lepore’s “Joe Gould’s Teeth” in The New Yorker

I fell in love with Joseph Mitchell when I read “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” Then when I learned that he was both a walker and collector of found objects I felt like I’d discovered a kindred spirit. And I’m not really bothered by what bothers a lot of people about Mitchell—that he probably made a lot of stuff up, that he mashed things together. Jill Lepore comments on Mitchell’s profile of eccentric Joe Gould, written for The New Yorker in 1964:

“Joe Gould’s Secret,” is a defense of invention. Mitchell took something that wasn’t beautiful, the sorry fate of a broken man, and made it beautiful—a fable about art. “Joe Gould’s Secret” is the best story many people have ever read. Its truth is, in a Keatsian sense, its beauty; its beauty, truth.”

What does bother me about Mitchell is what Lepore brings to light in “Joe Gould’s Teeth”—he failed to do a lot of the reporting he said he’d done and he ignored very troubling things about Gould, including his treatment of women. Lepore writes: “‘Are you gropable?’ was closer to the question he asked women, especially ‘colored girls,’ except that he usually didn’t ask….Mitchell knew about this, and ignored it.”

Lepore’s piece is framed around her quest to find Gould’s Oral History, which Mitchell famously revealed as nonexistent in “Joe Gould’s Secret.” By following this path she not only discovers new information about Mitchell, but also about Gould. Through her in-depth reporting we get a very different Joe Gould. A complicated Joe Gould with a past, health issues (both mental and physical), and perhaps autism. “Long ago, wouldn’t it have been clever, and comforting, for a boy who had no control over those behaviors to make up a story about how he was imitating a seagull?”


Anna March’s “Parched” in Virginia Quarterly Review

This essay is a beautifully honest reflection on the risk and longing, the danger and desire that’s all tied up in the act of moving—particularly when that move is to California. March does a fantastic job of exploring the idea of humanity’s inherent search for belonging. As someone who gets the itch to move quite often, I found her ability to put words and universality to these feelings quite satisfying. Of course the overarching theme winding throughout the essay is water. March shows us how because of its absence, water looms large as a daily topic of concern and conversation.

I am learning that one story of California is the story of water. That like our own lives it is a calculus of having and wanting and needing and learning to balance the three.

What I enjoyed most about the piece was the amazing combination of pace and imagery. I felt as if I was on a long walk with March through her Santa Barbara neighborhood: by the tsunami warning sign on the beach, past her neighbor’s lush green lawn and meticulously maintained roses, under the shedding jacaranda trees, and through the lemons and limes growing in her back yard. I have never visited the west coast, but in this piece, I am there. I am treated to the multitude of natural beauty on offer that is oppositely balanced by the multitude of potential natural dangers.

Living in Southern California is its own act of faith, a living without, an imagining of a good life, a reckoning with nature, a show of hope, deprivation. It’s a tradeoff here, on this slice of the Southern California coast, beauty for danger. Every place is dangerous. Here, though, danger seems more present, like it will just come without warning and swallow us whole. There’s notice back east before a hurricane, a derecho, a blizzard. Here, the earth just starts shaking. Here, a random spark starts a fire in a canyon and an hour later it meets the freeway and torches the cars on it. Here, houses slide off cliffs and slip away with the mud. … The risk that is truly crushing us now is the slow one, the nonimmediate one: the drought.



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