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MacKenzie Bezos’s novels are filled with dutiful wives supporting brilliant husbands

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones - Arrivals
MacKenzie Bezos with husband Jeff at the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of January 20, 2019.

“Reading takes me away from reality, and the reality right now is awful,” Chapman says. “If I’m reading, I’m not refreshing the news or Twitter and getting angrier and angrier. Instead I stay nice and relaxed.”

Chapman has always been a voracious reader, but her January totals are astonishing: She’s finished 29 books so far this month, sourced from the public library, her personal stash and Kindle Unlimited.

“That’s abnormal, even for me,” she says, though it does offer her a feeling of accomplishment as she crosses off titles on her to-read list.

Stories help us see the world through the eyes of others: We see what they see; we’re provoked or inspired or amused; we take sides or withhold judgment — but in the end, we find order in disorder. We make sense of the world around us through the language of stories. When we follow a narrative thread, we experience, at least for a while, a feeling of control. Reading fiction also allows us to expand the limits of our imagination and helps us develop empathy — qualities that seem to be in short supply at the moment.

There is a particular difficulty in discerning whether this book is good, not because the text qua text is somehow elusive or inscrutable but because one struggles to read it without sweeping for psychological clues. A confirmation bias is at work, and the belief to be confirmed is that a book by MacKenzie Bezos — one half of the richest couple in the world, partner to a man who has exploded paradigms of retail, labor, even capitalism itself, and upended the very industry that publishes her books — just has to be a roman à clef. Surely she would draw on such rich material, so close to hand?

Short stories required no more obsession than I already had stored up in my brain. Will felt like exactly the right word: I was willing stories into existence. I could work my brain like an electromagnet in a junkyard, turn it on, dip it into the heaps of my own mind, and pull something out. Perhaps not everything picked up was fiction-worthy, but some weird remnant would catch my fancy, and I could build a story around it. This felt like an extraordinary revelation.

In ninth-grade English classes around the country, To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to deliver a reckoning with American racism. In the 2012 documentary Hey Boo, Oprah Winfrey calls it “our national novel.” Written by a white woman, To Kill a Mockingbird was published at the dawn of a civil rights movement distant to high school students accustomed to dutiful but shallow observations of Black History Month. The teenagers of today, in my experience, chortle (and bristle) at racist memes on Instagram, explore trollish sectors of Reddit, and absorb frequent police shootings of unarmed black men. As a chronicle of our country’s racism, To Kill a Mockingbird is quaint, ill-equipped to deflect turds flung by an evolved state of bigotry.

  • Food publishing legend and Ecco founder Daniel Halpern wrote a Grub Street Food Diary this week, and it’s an inspiration to us all:

Up early to read, return emails, and prepare for author meetings. As a base for the day, I had a large glass of Siggi’s plain filmjölk with a nicely carved Bosc pear. Walked to work and successfully avoided the pastry products along the way.

At 11 a.m., I decided that today was the right day for a “Shake Shack Shuffle.” This is how it works: I ask around the office to see if anyone would like a free Shack lunch, with the proviso that they will pick up the food. Then I go on the app and order for us. A wonderful Ecco tradition. I got the standard ShackBurger and today Ashlyn, a true vegetarian, ordered the ‘Shroom Burger and Gabriella the Chick’n Shack. A mutually beneficial negotiation.

The repetition of characters’ names is certainly one possible fallback, and though you as a writer may initially think that that third “Constance” over the course of seven sentences is overkill, I as your copy editor strongly believe that your readers will be happier not to have to puzzle over which “she” you’re talking about; I think of this as basic skeletal stuff and believe that it’s all but invisible to readers. On the other hand, if your paragraph is awash with names and pronouns and you think it’s all too much, hunker down and do the sort of revision that eliminates the need for an excess of either. It can be tricky, but it’s worth it, and it may well net you a leaner, stronger bit of prose.

To write from scratch feels, to me, like digging into concrete with a spoon to make a space I can lie in without being trodden on. And — at the very least — with retelling there is half a hole there to begin with.

As Claire Vaye Watkins says: let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something new. Utter destruction, complete annihilation. There is nothing more frightening to a writer than that glowing blank page. And so — because we may be frightened while also being brave — we take some of the old building’s rubble; steal a doorknob or two, use the line of a window for inspiration, make a sitting room of the ancient hollowed swimming pool.

I want to speak about retelling as a way of rewriting old constructs, of taking texts and forming other texts from their bones. I want to also speak about a new style of writing that might emerge from the wreckage, and what it might look like.

Does it matter if a thing is alive if it convincingly mimics life? If a large part of the Earth’s population was working on an AI’s knowledge bank, I’m sure life-like mimicry would continue to reach for that upper limit or surpass it altogether — whatever that would look like — and the answer to the question of sentience would become even more elusive. I imagine there’s a future in this story’s world where people start debating whether they should be allowed to “use” Common without giving it a choice.

Here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting Happy reading!

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