Staff Picks: Viruses, Villages, and Vikings


This Week’s Reading

Torrey Peters. Photo: Natasha Gornik.

I am not one of those people who, in the early days of the pandemic, watched Contagion and read Blindness. If anything, finding the waking hours difficult enough, I have largely avoided pandemic-themed works. So this week, when I revisited Torrey Peters’s Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, it was not in an effort to live out this current crisis in a fictionalized one. Actually, I’d kind of forgotten the complete centrality of a virus to the work and instead best remembered the magnetic, sometimes erratic Lexi and her unforgettable declaration: “In the future, everyone will be trans.” Of course, she’s referring to the pandemic itself—Lexi creates a virus that stops hormone production in the body, forcing everyone to actively choose their gender and seek out hormone-replacement therapy. She infects our unnamed narrator with her virus, and five years later, it appears that society has collapsed, war has broken out, and things have gone full-on apocalypse. Peters does a phenomenal job of examining the complicated, difficult relationship between the narrator and Lexi and capturing the social dynamics within their community. Peters has said she forgoes including “Trans 101” in her work, instead writing for other trans people and expecting cis readers to keep up, and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones is no exception. What struck me on this particular rereading, however, was the structure of the book. At the novella’s center is the moment that Lexi infects the narrator (“Contagion Day”), with the story moving backward and forward in time from there, oscillating from a prepandemic Seattle to a postpandemic Iowa. This, as we steadily approach our various one-year anniversaries of local shutdowns, felt like an eerily uncanny framing of the narrative. —Mira Braneck 

Making lists has become a go-to method for expanding my tastes. With cinema, for example, I have encountered remarkable variety in searching for films by their treatment of a particular object—cereal or telephones or eggs. What literary discoveries might emerge from a list of books with chairs on their covers? My latest list-driven venture was musical: a playlist of twenty-four songs wherein each track is titled after an hour of the day. This process led to the golden-cassette-tape treasure that is Bona Dish, a UK-based pop punk group who never saw the release of a studio album but did manage to crank out the ultimate just-woke-up-in-a-garage jam, “8am.” Push play on this track as you climb out of bed or brush your gums or fill the first kettle of the day, and note your transformation from a groggy prisoner of the morning grind to the gritty protagonist of a grind house smash. The aptly named Captured Tracks, an indie record label out of Brooklyn, has ensnared the feral Bona Dish sound, rescuing it from the wilderness of obscurity, rehabilitating it, and releasing it as The Zaragoza Tapes: 1981​–1982, which serves as a kind of sonic consolidation or catalogue or curation or list. Ah, knowing how list leads on to list … Bona Dish—for fans of film grain, fog, bathtub gin, half-remembered dreams, benday dots, dust on the mantel, matte finish, the houndstooth stitch, echoes, alleyways, and raw, unfiltered honey. —Christopher Notarnicola


Henry Louis Gates Jr., 2013. Photo: Oregon State University. CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.


Finding Your Roots, the TV show in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells famous people about their ancestors, is pure, restorative joy. His guests—two per episode—represent a range of backgrounds, but they share an all-American ignorance of family history. Some of their ancestors were kidnapped and brought to the U.S. in enslavement, their African lineages lost, their centuries of history here shattered by family separations. Others came voluntarily but declined to share the past with their American-born offspring—it was too traumatic, or they hated to jeopardize assimilation, or there was some lie that had once seemed necessary and now felt cemented. Gates sits across from the likes of Ava DuVernay, Fred Armisen, and Pharrell Williams, asking gentle questions and sliding census records, news items, and photos of distant villages and townspeople across the table, drawing a long crooked line from immigration (and sometimes points further back) to celebrity. Often, his guests discover that their roots are far more widespread and complicated than they thought—maybe their ancestors were on the wrong side of the war somewhere, maybe they weren’t exactly who they’d been mythologized as, or maybe they were worthy of myth but previously unknown. Each episode approaches the satisfaction of a good novel, and Gates is the perfect narrator—a model of compassion and grace, even as he explodes his characters’ truth. —Jane Breakell

I used to hear all the time about how bookstores were dying, and I’d come back with tales from 192 Books in Chelsea, where I worked on and off for three years in a temple of literature. All sorts of folks visited—composers and artists, an older man who was the sole inhabitant of an island off the coast of Maine and read David Foster Wallace with his daughter, tourists, pop stars, writers I revered, and editors of this magazine. This extraordinary audience was in part because the store is owned by the publisher Jack Macrae and the gallerist Paula Cooper, two book lovers who understand what literature can do. One of my favorite customers was an extremely impressive young person who came to the register with, among other things, the highlights of Beat literature. At the time I was a bit surprised, but this morning I can’t see why. I loved the Beats when I was her age. Before college, I crossed the country to attend an art program in Oakland based on little more than Jack Kerouac and the light on Coit Tower. I crossed the country again once I graduated because even after four years of college, I still asked, “Are you my Angel?,” just as Allen Ginsberg had taught me. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died this week at the age of 101, didn’t create Ginsberg or Neal Cassady, Kerouac or Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder or Bob Kaufman, but he may well have created the Beats. A poet and a painter, he understood the occasional chill of creative work and the heat of community. When he opened City Lights, the now-landmarked bookstore in San Francisco, he did so with the intention of selling cheap paperback editions and establishing a space for browsing and arguing. With the Pocket Poets Series, he published some of the best English-language writing of the twentieth century, including Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and Ginsberg’s Howl. The Beats didn’t speak for everyone, and they didn’t speak to everyone. But Ferlinghetti helped to place literature in the counterculture and the counterculture in literature in ways that improved both camps. Until we can pack into the shelf-lined rooms of independent bookstores again, stumbling upon old friends and new titles, I’ll buy a book directly from one such beacon and hope they outlive Ferlinghetti many times over. —Julia Berick

I picked up Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings earlier this week after being subjected to several animated retellings of it from my roommate, whose obsession seemed like a good sign. Price, a Sweden-based archaeologist and academic, is adept at bringing this cosmopolitan and brutal world to life, interweaving many complicated strands of history with his own experience in the field along with poetic meditations on a people and time long since passed. (The militaristic society that we are familiar with as “Viking,” for instance, is most likely the direct result of a sixth-century volcanic eruption in modern-day El Salvador that had catastrophic effects for the rest of the world, plunging Scandinavia into a three-year winter that killed half the population. I had no idea!) Price is especially careful to break the real Vikings—who, he emphasizes, were sophisticated traders and travelers who recognized no such thing as a “pure Nordic” bloodline—away from the white supremacists who have attempted to claim kinship. The everyday world of the Vikings is, like those of all premodern peoples, simultaneously familiar and repellent, fascinating in how different the conceptions of spirituality, time, gender roles, the value of life, and more are from our own. One passage from the account of a Caliphate emissary who witnessed the ten-day ceremonies and human sacrifice required for a chieftain’s death is, to be frank, incredibly disturbing, while the idea of the self and soul as divided into four beings—including a living personification of one’s family lineage and another personification of one’s personal good luck—charms. But what Children of Ash and Elm is particularly deft at conveying is that for all of us—Viking or not—time, and the cruelty of its passage, remains the largest commonality of all. —Rhian Sasseen


Neil Price. Photo: Linda Qvistrom. Courtesy of Basic Books.