What We’re Reading and Watching

Book recommendations and more from Intercept staffers.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept


Nights of Plague,” Orhan Pamuk
Like many other people during the pandemic, I searched for books that could help me understand the impact of a mass disease outbreak on society. Above any book of epidemiology or history, however, I found that this novel by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk about an outbreak of plague on a fictional Mediterranean island to be the most enlightening about how disease can sap the human spirit and break open divisions within a society. His writing is darkly humorous and full of pathos — highly recommended for anyone looking for a novel to immerse themselves in this summer. – Murtaza Hussain

Cuatro Manos,” Paco Ignacio Taibo II
The novel “Cuatro Manos” was published in 1997 and features major historical characters and events from 20th century Latin America. Taibo, a renowned author and activist in Mexico, guides us through a story of two journalists in the 1980s. They begin to investigate unpublished and undiscovered works by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, written during his exile in Mexico City. The book jumps between the past and the present. And the two journalists’ travels through Latin America overlap with drug traffickers, a Spanish anarchist, a Bulgarian communist, and a shady CIA agent. It’s a light, fun novel, but it may require the reader to stop at every few pages and independently research historical events Taibo narrates, like the CIA’s alleged involvement in the killing of Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. – José Olivares

Harrow,” Joy Williams
On the banks of a fetid lake called Big Girl, a cadre of aging rebels plots acts of ecoterrorism. They don’t consider themselves terrorists, though, reserving that appellation for bankers and war-mongers, “exterminators and excavators … those locusts of clattering, clacking hunger.” You can hardly blame them. In this vision of a near-future beset by ecological collapse, oranges and horses are long gone, but Disney World has “rebooted and is going strong.” A girl named Khirsten, or Lamb, who may or may not have been resurrected as an infant, stumbles upon the group after her mother disappears and her boarding school abruptly shuts down.

This is the rough plot of “Harrow” by Joy Williams, but the plot is not really the point. Williams is a worldbuilder, crafting mood and meaning out of layered fragments. Her writing is often called “experimental,” but if anything, oblique prose is the truest way to capture life under the yoke of apocalypse, the dizzying absurdity of deciding to forsake Earth for profit. Sometimes, lucid revelations peek through — “I think the world is dying because we were dead to its astonishments pretty much. It’ll be around but it will become less and less until it’s finally compatible with our feelings for it” — though for the most part, the world of “Harrow” is a labyrinth of decay. But don’t be mistaken: The book is very funny. Apocalypse is a slow creep, and while the Earth might not end with a bang, at least in “Harrow,” it ends with one final, reverberating laugh. – Schuyler Mitchell

Red Team Blues,” Cory Doctorow
I just started “Red Team Blues,” and I can’t put it down. I’ve always loved Cory Doctorow’s novels, and this one is no exception. The protagonist, a 67-year-old retired forensic accountant who lives alone in his RV called the Unsalted Hash, spent his career tracking down assets of the ultra-rich by unwinding their shady networks of shell companies. He took one final job from an old friend and found himself both incredibly rich and in a world of trouble, trying to escape with his life. This book is a cryptocurrency techno-thriller (full of characters who are skeptical of crypto bros and insist that “crypto means cryptography”), and it’s full of money laundering, tax havens, lawyers for the 1 percent, organized crime and murders, hacking and open source intelligence, and so much more. This is the first book in a new series that I definitely plan on reading as they come out. – Micah Lee

In Memory of Memory,” Maria Stepanova
Appropriate to its contents, the title so easy to remember, yet always escapes memory. – Fei Liu

Long Way Down,” Jason Reynolds
I don’t often reach for poetry, but I had 15 minutes before I boarded a flight and had neglected to pack a book. The cover was riddled with awards and, most importantly, it was right next to the checkout. “Long Way Down” captures an emotional journey of grief built around a young man’s descent in an elevator after his brother is shot and killed. The book is an intense, quick read (I finished before we landed), written in captivating staccato narrative verse. The anxiety was palpable and fierce, and the structure truly enhances the reading experience. I found myself reflecting on Reynolds’s motivation for structural decisions, just as much as his word choice. Overall, “Long Way Down” is a powerful study in the traumatic and lasting impact of violence on individuals and communities. – Kate Miller

The Melancholy of Resistance,” László Krasznahorkai
I’ve been — very slowly! — reading “The Melancholy of Resistance” by László Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian writer best known in the U.S. for Béla Tarr’s grueling film adaptation of his novel “Sátántangó.” Written during the collapse of Eastern Bloc communism, “Melancholy” tells the surreal tale of a rubbish-strewn town visited by a mysterious circus exhibiting only the body of a giant whale, which slowly incites the townspeople to madness. As the town’s petty tyrants scheme to use the chaos to their advantage, Krasznahorkai’s novel becomes a striking parable about the appeal of fascism in uncertain times, while his darkly funny stream-of-consciousness prose captures the devilish internal logic of anxiety. “His followers know all things are false pride, but they don’t know why.” Sound familiar? – Thomas Crowley

The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga,” Mohamedou Ould Slahi
I found myself laughing, loudly, overcome with appreciation and awe during the first few pages of my friend Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s first novel, “The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga.” Mohamedou opens the book by swearing “on the belly button of my only sister” that the story we are about to hear is a thousand percent true and that we must have already heard it before. What begins to unfold is a mystical tale so rich in detail, tradition, Mauritanian culture, and moral guidance that you feel Mohamedou himself is speaking all this to you, and only you, while slurping his hot tea and conjuring the tale with his hands. It’s impossible to put the pages down once you start across the desert with Ahmed, battling djinns, dreams, snakes, and the changing ways of the world as he races to find his missing camel named Zarga. While Mohamedou is best known for captivating the world with best-selling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” and as the subject of the film “The Mauritanian,” both about his time wrongly imprisoned and tortured at GTMO, it is this stunning novel, rich with wordplay, wit, and unwavering conviction, that lets us know his true heart. – Elise Swain

The Lathe of Heaven,” Ursula K. Le Guin
Have you ever woken up from a dream so intense that it affected you in real life? George Orr’s dreams change lived reality, so he wants to stop sleeping, and the only person who can cure him is his misguided psychiatrist whose ambitions to make their dystopia, and his own position in it, “better” means that Orr can’t be treated just yet. Le Guin’s topical themes of techno-utopianism, alternate realities, collective false memories, living nightmares, consent, and more make me forget that it was published in 1971. The novel also has aliens, untranslatable words, a Beatles song, plague history, and Hollywood-thriller plot scaffolding (a cinematic climax and almost forced coupling of the passive protagonist who falls in love with the lawyer helping him). Two video artists made a film adaptation in 1980 on a shoestring budget — with Le Guin’s active involvement — that was produced by NYC public television and aired on PBS. I haven’t watched it yet (it’s available on YouTube), but in my dream soundtrack for “The Lathe of Heaven,” I hear the late Pauline Anna Strom’s prelude-to-a-portal “Marking Time” over the opening credits. – Nara Shin


The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War,” Jeff Sharlet
I’ve been reading Jeff Sharlet’s reporting on the varieties of Christian authoritarianism for more than 20 years. In books such as “The Family” and “C Street,” Sharlet exposed the political ambitions and hidden influence of shadowy and well-financed Christian extremists. Looking back, after the Trump presidency, his writings now seem prophetic. In “The Undertow,” Sharlet sets out to understand the movement that coalesced, under Donald Trump, into full-blown messianic fascism. How do we stop this slow-motion slide toward political violence, the strange lure of civil war?

The Last Honest Man,” James Risen’s political biography of Sen. Frank Church, should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the dangers of the national security state. Risen’s book might also illuminate the underlying causes of the national pathology described in “The Undertow.” – Roger Hodge

Black Women Writers at Work,” Claudia Tate
In this powerhouse of a collection, Claudia Tate interviews iconic Black women writers, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Ntozake Shange, about their process, inspirations, critiques, and audience. I was personally thrilled to read about the differences between the structures of their writing processes, as well as their thoughts on craft — it’s a trove of knowledge for any writer, poet, or playwright. Black women writers are often lumped together as a monolith; this book breaks apart that belief throughout every single interview. – Skyler Aikerson

A World Without Soil,” Jo Handelsman
No time to write! Only to read and garden! – Fei Liu

Nineteen Reservoirs: On Their Creation and the Promise of Water for New York City,” Lucy Sante
Best known for “Lowlife,” her masterpiece history of low-class New York City’s metaphorical underground, Lucy Sante of late turned her sights on the underwater. Specifically, in “Nineteen Reservoirs,” she tells the stories of upstate New York valleys and ravines, hamlets and farms, all drowned one by one to expand the water supply of the growing metropolis downstate. Sante writes with the verve we expect from her, transmitting an astounding amount of rapid-fire details and facts with delectable prose that keeps it humming and makes it easy reading. – Ali Gharib

Mussolini’s Grandchildren,” David Broder
When it became clear last year that my country was about to elect its most rightwing government since Benito Mussolini gave fascism its name, I found it hard to explain to non-Italians how we had gotten there, so I pointed them to David Broder’s words instead. After speaking with Broder for a story about how new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had inspired a surge of far-right threats and attacks against journalists and critics, I picked up his book, “Mussolini’s Grandchildren,” a lucid if terrifying history drawing the direct and rather explicit line between Mussolini’s regime and Meloni’s political triumph. It’s a history even many Italians watched unfold almost without noticing, deluded by the notion that fascism is for the history books alone, or maybe just wishing to look the other way. It’s also by no means an Italian story alone. – Alice Speri

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” Tom O’Neill
I am reading “Chaos” alongside “Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence. I recommend listening to The Fucktrots while reading. – Daniel Boguslaw

Strange Tapes” zine
DIY zines oft offer a kaleidoscopic peek down the subcultural spiral. No matter how fringe a particular hobby may look, the deeper you dive into a given genre, the more singular the subject matter becomes. Strange Tapes is a zine devoted to the celebratory archaeology of unearthing VHS ephemera: analog jetsam that’s washed up on the shores of thrift stores and swap meets, or in the dregs of dusty attics and musty basements. The tapes covered range from promotional and instructional videos, to recorded home movies and Z-grade filmmaking efforts. Interspersed with reviews of the tapes are interviews with independent filmmakers, collectors, and other personalities. “Strange Tapes” is a zine for those who marvel at the sheer range of humanity’s knowledge base, and the accompanying desire to share those singular skill sets with the world at large, whether those proficiencies are in the realm of ocular yoga or canine choreography.  – Nikita Mazurov

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice,” Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
A love letter to the sick and disabled queer and trans community of color in Canada and beyond. This collection of essays discusses everything from chronic suicidal ideation, accessible queer spaces, invisible femme labor, tips for sick and disabled artists who are traveling, and much, much more. Listening to this audiobook (narrated by the author) was such a beautiful, impactful experience; Piepzna-Samarasinha writes with sizzling rage and deep love for their communities in a way that will set you on fire. – Skyler Aikerson

Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora,” Reem Assil
For the past several years, I’ve been learning to recreate the Syrian dishes I ate growing up, begging my mom to commit to writing (or at least a voice note) the recipes she knows via muscle memory and FaceTiming her when something just doesn’t look right. More recently, I’ve sought to expand my repertoire of dishes from Syria and the broader Levant by digging into cookbooks written by chefs from the region. “Arabiyya” by Reem Assil is the most recent addition to my collection, which also includes “The Palestinian Table” by Reem Kassis and “Feast: Food of the Islamic World” by Anissa Helou.

Assil, who was born in the United States to a Syrian father and Palestinian mother, weaves personal stories about her food experiences as a diaspora Arab with recipes that run the gamut from pickled vegetables to a slow-cooked lamb shoulder. I’ve so far attempted her shawarma mexiciyya (Mexican shawarma) — a fusion dish that she describes in English as al pastor-style red-spiced chicken — and her kafta bil bandoura, or meatballs in Arab-spiced tomato sauce. The shawarma recipe features my all-time favorite spice, Aleppo pepper, which I threw into the meatballs as well. (I don’t quite yet have my mom’s nafas yet, but I’m slowly but surely trying to wean myself off the dictates of a written recipe.) This summer, I’m looking forward to trying my hand at making saj, a flatbread named for the dome-shaped griddle it is prepared on, and musakhan, a Palestinian dish that involves sumac-spiced chicken. – Maryam Saleh

How to Stand Up to a Dictator,” Maria Ressa
Maria Ressa’s new book, “How to Stand up to a Dictator,” is both a memoir by a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a stirring call to action against the toxic power of social media companies and the autocrats that they enable around the world. – James Risen


Joyland,” Saim Sadiq
I’ve thought about “Joyland” at least once a day since it opened in New York earlier this month. I’ve already seen it twice — that’s how obsessed I am with this gorgeous, emotional tour de force of a film. Haider is an unemployed, acquiescent young man who lives in a joint household in Lahore with his free-spirited wife, his conventionally masculine older brother and his family, and his elderly patriarch father. Haider finds a job as a backup dancer for a fierce trans burlesque performer, who he has an instant crush on. What happens from there sends a ripple effect through his family, as they each strain against the stifling scripts of gender and sexuality that they impose on themselves and each other.

“Joyland” is a deeply human story about untangling desires from obligations to embody the most honest version of ourselves for a chance to experience connection as we are. It’s a movie you feel just as much as you watch. – Rashmee Kumar

Return to Seoul,” Davy Chou
This movie is so unusual, a mixture of a transnational adoption documentary and a film noir, created by the French director Davy Chou. “Return to Seoul” follows the journey of a Korean adoptee played by the elusive Park Ji-min, who wasn’t an actor at all until taking the lead role in this film. Park’s character decides on a whim to return to the country where she was born, and the result is a film that goes sideways at every issue and scenario it lands on. Yes, it’s the saga of an adoptee who seeks out her birth parents, but that’s just some of what happens. It unfolds with visual and existential twists you don’t expect, keeping you in suspense until the last note. It also provides an imaginative variation on the discourse about the emotional dislocation that foreign adoption can involve. If you want to know more about that after the credits roll, I highly recommend the landmark “Adopted Territory,” written by anthropologist (and friend) Eleana J. Kim. – Peter Maass

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