Author Archives: Joseph Barbato

How I Shed My Skin & Much More


“Not every racist is a person who dons a KKK logo. There is a whole middle ground of people who have racist ideas, though if you examine the rest of their lives, you would think they were virtuous, decent, ordinary people.” Here‘s Jim Grimsley (How I Shed My Skin).

Novelist Nell Zink (Mislaid) on speed as a sign of proficiency: “No one expected Rembrandt to spend 10 years on a fucking painting. He acquired the skills … to be able to do it in a day and a half.” Here.

Says  SF writer Neal Stephenson (Seveneves): “You know, when I was a kid growing up in Ames, Iowa, I used to ride my bike down to the bookmobile every week and check out whatever new science fiction they had. On one of those trips, I picked up a space ark kind of book. It’s a whole little sub-genre onto itself, and I was fascinated by the general idea. I don’t remember the title or who wrote the book, but you know how it is when you’re a kid; if you reach the right book at the right time, it can make a huge impact on you. I think it’s been gestating for at least that long, but it took me a while to come up with the right catastrophe. It’s actually hard to come up with an end of the world scenario. Here.

In the Chicago-set The Making of Zombie Wars, misfortune befalls protagonist Joshua Levin, but only because of his misguided decision making—he’s like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, without the financial security. Unlike David, Joshua is a screenwriter only in the abstract: he has a constant supply of movie ideas but fails to develop them into fully formed scripts. He struggles with Zombie Wars, a project he manages to focus on during a screenwriting workshop, and pays some of his bills and rent by teaching ESL (the rest is fronted by his divorced parents).” Here‘s novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making os Zombie Wars.

Viet Thanh Nguyen on his debut novel The Sympathizer: “It’s certainly a novel about the Vietnam War, but I always intended it as a novel about power, abuse, authority, and how everybody—on all sides of all factions—are capable of doing these things. We like to deny that we are capable of doing those things but that our enemies can, and so the novel takes a side. The novel takes the side of justice, but in so doing, it recognizes that everybody is committing injustice in the name of these revolutionary and democratic struggles.” Here.

This Idea Must Die

It’s a statistical fact that you’re more likely to die while horseback riding (one serious adverse event every 350 or so exposures) than from taking Ecstasy (one serious adverse event every 10,000 or so exposures). Yet in 2009 the scientist who said this was fired from his position as chairman of the U.K.’s Advisory Council on  the Misuse of Drugs. Professor David Nutt’s remit was to make scientific recommendations to government ministers on the classification of illegal drugs based on the harm they can cause. He was dismissed because his statement highlighted how the U.K. government’s policies on narcotics are at odds with scientific evidence. Today, the medical use of drugs such as cannabis remains technically illegal.

-Buddhini Samarasinghe, Molecular biologist, “Scientists Should Stick to Science,” in This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress edited by John Brockman

My Documents

Yasna fired the gun into her father’s chest and then suffocated him with a pillow.

-Alejandro Zambra, “Artist’s Rendition,” in My Documents


Reagan remembered three things from childhood: that his father was a drunk, that his mother was a saint, and that his ability to make an audience laugh afforded an antidote to life’s insecurities and embarrassments.

-H.W. Brands, Reagan: The Life

War of the Encyclopaedists

It was the Friday before Independence Day and the twentysomethings of early-millennium Seattle were celebrating alcohol and freedom as they had done every Friday since time immemorial.

-Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists

Burning Down George Orwell’s House

A truly monumental advertising campaign could be a work of public performance art, one that could make an ungodly profit if the advertisers learned to put–or learned to  pretend to put–the once-private desires of the proles (that was, the consumers) ahead of those of Big Brother (the corporate overlords who hired them). Ray wanted to exploit the proles’ false sense of freedom; he would reach out to consumers’ greatest aspirational self-images confident in knowing that people purchased things not for who they were but for who they wanted to be.

-Andrew Ervin, Burning Down George Orwell’s House: A Novel

The New World

Jim collapsed and died at the hospital where he and Jane both worked, she as a pediatric surgeon and he as a chaplain–a humanist chaplain, as he liked to remind everyone.

-Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, The New World: A Novel

The Dorito Effect & More

“Big Food, in search of volume and profit, has zapped our meat and veggies (and everything else) of real flavor, replacing it with, among other things, water and chemicals. But as flavor has disappeared, so has nutrition.” Here‘s a review of The Dorito Effect.

On Mazie, a novel about the “Queen of the Bowery”: “[Jami] Attenberg has written a winning novel and a lovely tribute to a New Yorker whose only claim to fame is her outsized kindness. Her Mazie is richly imagined and three-dimensional, and in these pages she lives forever.” Here.

Judy Blume’s “most ambitious [novel] to date, and she lives up to its reach with her characteristic frankness, compassion and charm.” Here‘s In the Unlikely Event.

Says Dave Eggers (The Voice of Witness Reader): “The media has no choice but to sometimes give us a snapshot. It’s a rough draft of history, newspapers and media and the news where you have to react on a day-to-day basis. But I think that that’s the first draft, and then, ideally, if you wanted to know about one of the issues talked about in one of the Voice of Witness books, I think oral history is just a really central part of that issue, whether it’s public housing, whether it’s the situation in Colombia, in Zimbabwe, in South Sudan, or understanding an issue like the rights of workers in the global economy.” Here.


The Fatal Flame

Dunfhlaith o Dufaigh, as she had been called in the green mother country, where the rocks pierced the grasslands the way gaunt collarbones pierced the peaceful slumbering corpses in the streets, recalled what it felt like to be hungry.

-Lyndsay Faye, The Fatal Flame: A Novel

Chaucer’s Tale

Chaucer the writer was, in effect, an “other” Chaucer, shielded from public view and pursuing his craft less as a public performance than as a private avocation. This Chaucer wrote as a matter of personal choice and not for acclaim or reward. Well into midlife, he treated his poetry as essentially a private matter to be shared with like-minded friends in intimate circumstances rather than as an engine of personal fame. Temperamentally, he disdained self-promotion, regarding Tuscan eminences like Dante and Petrarch as particularly egregious offenders. Nothing interested him less than the idea of broadcasting his writing to an absent and anonymous clientele.

-Paul Strohm, Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury