Photo: Riccardo Romano

Women We Read This Week

Patsy Sims’ “No Twang of Conscience Whatever” in Oxford American

In “No Twang of Conscience Whatever,” Patsy Sims investigates the 1964 murders of civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney – an investigation which leads her to the Ku Klux Klan’s White Knights of Mississippi and a chilling interview with Preacher Edgar Ray Killen.

While the original 1967 trial ended in a hung jury for Killen, he was eventually convicted of the murders of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney in 2005; during his conversation with Sims in 1976, however, he remained a free man even while declaring, “After knowing the things I know today, had I done it, I wouldn’t have any regrets.”

In her thorough examination of the vicious murders and both the 1967 and 2005 trials, Sims’ greatest tool lies in her detailed observations and careful deployment of quoted speech. Sims allows Killen, as well as other key figures, to speak for themselves:

“Never done anything they would say that I have done, that I would have regrets, would lose any sleep, have any nervous reactions—no, ma’am, no twang of conscience whatever.”

At the end of the essay, Sims retraces the route taken by Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney on the night of their murders. Accompanied by Leroy Clemons, the man largely responsible for the 2005 trial, Sims merges past with present in a final moment: “Except for our voices, there is no sound, no movement, and then I see a pair of headlights approaching in the distance, and I think about the two of us standing there alone, Leroy Clemons black, me white. I feel a building panic, and the image of Killen and me outside my motel room flashes across my mind as the lights grow nearer, until the car is upon us and finally continues past.”

At last, the terror of that night in 1964, the terror created and perpetuated by the Klan, the terror of her own interview with Killen, overwhelms her. In the end, Sims can investigate no further; she can make no sense of such evil.


Lucy Madison’s “My Fiance Hates My Favorite Pants” in Lucky Magazine

This is one of those pieces I found myself reading in the midst of some murky mid-afternoon Twitter slump, the Internet equivalent of making yet another pass by the office candy bowl to see if the Reese’s cups had rematerialized themselves. When I clicked I had no desire beyond wanting to experience the sensation of words entering my brain that did not completely disgust and enrage me. But then the most wonderful thing happened—I was charmed! And not only charmed, but satisfied in a way I only very rarely feel during these idle web-grazing fugues.

In the deep pleats of those flowing trousers, I found the strength to confront even the most stressful social situations. The black stripe running down the side of each leg was my wink at New York’s fashionable elite. “I may not be of you, but I get you,” was my (deeply unspoken) message. Time and again, they worked like magic: It was as if I’d found a genie’s lamp, been granted a wish, and then the genie gave me his pants.

Really, this might be the platonic ideal of the knowingly-low-stakes but still totally heartfelt personal essay. It’s about pants, but also finding yourself and keeping yourself found in the context of a relationship, and our changing relationships with our chosen identity marker. And pants.


Lydia Perović’s interview with Margaret Drabble in The Believer

I first came across Margaret Drabble in my early 20s, when I found a copy of A Summer Bird-Cage that our landlady had left on a shelf. I read it hungrily; it spoke to me, or to me at that time in my life, at least, even though it had been written forty years earlier. There’s a mundanity in Drabble’s novels that I love, and that largely transcends time and space: in her work, people – but women particularly – are allowed to live their everyday lives. What I feel when I read Drabble now is the significance of my own everyday life, and that’s no small thing.

This gentle, memorable interview covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space of time, with Drabble and Perović discussing issues around writing, motherhood, mental health, inherited privilege, and more. But my favorite parts are where a curiosity about the everyday is palpable; about the historical novel, for instance, Drabble says, “I know what happened. I don’t need to read it to find out.[…] And I…it’s just not why I write a book. I write to think about what’s happening and why I’m here and where my children and I are going to.”

Towards the end of the interview, Drabble talks about why she feels The Needle’s Eye is her best book. Her explanation is pure poetry:

In it, I got something of the aspiration to be good, and the pleasure in the ordinary things. I really loved the dog show at the end. It brings back to me all those moments with children and friends when the terrible ordinariness of life was completely transcended because everything was all right for a moment.


Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape On Campus” in Rolling Stone

Fair warning: This is a tough story to read. It begins with a brutal gang rape at a frat house and then winds its way through years – decades – of staggeringly negligent administrative inaction on numerous sexual assaults at the University of Virginia.

It can be difficult to recreate wrenching, traumatic scenes like the ones Erdely conjures here without it feeling unseemly, a dramatic re-enactment of a victim’s pain – like an inspired-by-true-events late night TV movie. But she writes with restraint and just enough detail to leave a reader sickened without feeling like a voyeur. And her detailed reporting into the UVA administration’s non-response to the violence left me just as angry at the campus bureaucrats as I was at the young men luring women into their frat houses, and getting away scot-free.

It’s a tough read, but it’s very important. I hope you’ll make the time.


Madeleine Watts’ “‘Life That Is This’–On Women’s Coming of Age Novels and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” in The Believer Logger

More than 30 years ago, I sat on the wooden floor of my parents’ bedroom in front of the mirrored wooden door of my mother’s closet. I had a book, perhaps a child’s magazine, with a sketch of a boy looking at himself in a mirror, reflected in a mirror. Infinite reflection. I stared at myself for a long, long time, trying to find the point where the reflections ended and reality emerged triumphant. When I failed, I went and lay down on the green couch in the living room couch and read a book – I cannot remember what– as though my life depended on it.

Madeleine Watts’ essay cum book review brought this afternoon back to me. There is something of infinite reflection in a writer prone to personal interpolation reviewing a reviewer for an essay that is both a review and a deep, raw personal interpolation. A girl looking at a girl looking… and so on. But there is also the more urgent matter of what and how girls read as though our lives depend on it – and what those girls grow up to write. Watts’ review is of Eimar McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which owes a debt of gratitude to Joyce and Beckett and “also possesses an interiority […] that sparks at a quality I’ve found in Virginia Woolf and Clarice Lispector.”

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing feels important at least in part because it articulates the things that novels—those that take as their subject the experiences of young women—tend not to explicate. To hint at only in their shapes and never make clear in the details.

In the course of this review, Watts reveals that, at 14, she walked home from school barefoot on most days, often reading. She stuffed her school-mandated straw hat into her bag and plowed through the books her father steered her towards – Fitzgerald and Hemingway – and then on to other members of what she dubs “The Boy Canon”: Fante, Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson. These books left her star-struck and word-dazzled, a proto-writer for sure. But they left out things that she needed to hear about what it means to be a girl becoming a woman, finding pleasure and filth and life beyond the uniform that girlhood requires. McBride’s book provides some of these utterances that The Boy Canon would not or could not supply.

There is reality somewhere in infinite reflection, and one of my favorite sorts of reviews is one that makes me want to read the book because the reviewer appears to be such a kindred spirit, such a familiar soul. I want to read more of Watts and more of McBride, too – and to do it barefoot, with the day’s uniform crumpled up inside my bag.



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