Substack Reads: Blonde supernova, the deadliest contraception, and wasting gourds
Hello and welcome to another edition of Substack Reads!
This week we bring you another feast of great writers and podcasters, many of whom we hope you are discovering for the first time—from language learners to compost experts, philosophers to critics. Let’s dive in!
As an adaption of Substack writer Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about Marilyn Monroe hits the big screen, Mary Gaitskill revisits how the original was a tale of strange exception
I just saw Blonde, the film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ epic novel, a fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe’s life. My God: like watching a beautiful but totally hapless woman being chased by dogs that tear off her clothes before a jeering crowd which sexually assaults her and then kicks her in the rear with humiliating sound effects before dumping her down a sewer. A dispiriting, actually sadistic spectacle especially considering that it’s based on a beyond-words extraordinary, uniquely gifted, tough and graceful artist whose hard-won success and glamor is rightly celebrated and revered 60 years after her death—glory which doesn’t show up for a minute in this movie. It is dispiriting too that such a crude disaster is based on the work of the fierce and profound JCO whose novel is much, much better.
It is true that Oates’ book also exaggerates Monroe’s suffering and degradation for its own complex purposes—but that portrayal is counter-weighted by an abundance of Oatesian beauty, depth and power, striking a brilliant mixed tone that is appropriate to its subject. Monroe’s life was an electrifying intersection of opposites: love and lovelessness, degradation and exaltation, power and vulnerability—powerful vulnerability, lushly embodied. This is something Oates seems to understand deeply; that some people, some times, can be a “Fair Princess” and a “Beggar Maid” simultaneously. Such opposites are hard to bear, and they can be present in anyone’s life—I would even say that they are present in nearly everyone’s life in one way or another. But how hard and complicated to not only channel these opposites but to do so in public, in the creation of an avatar-like persona of pure delight.
Comedy writer and best-selling author James Breakwell envisioned numerous famous moments for himself, but this one wasn’t it
I’m a liar.
Through the skillful art of hyperbole, I make a life that’s barely interesting enough for one person seem exciting enough for two. By day, I’m a mild-mannered office worker and father of four. By night, I’m the same mild-mannered office worker and father of four, but I also write stupid jokes on the internet. See the difference? In the beginning, when I spent huge chunks of my life banging together words for free, I came up with a pen name so that my employer wouldn’t find out what I was up to. I didn’t want them to make me choose between a day job that paid actual money and a dream job that, at that moment, only paid likes, retweets, and the occasional comment that I was a terrible parent and my kids were going to die. Thank goodness for the block button.
Last year, Cass Marketos discarded a 20-pound gourd from the roof of her garage to an audience of approximately 45 drunk people. There are easier ways to compost your pumpkin, of course…
And I wouldn’t be doing my job here if I didn’t tell you that it was quite worth the effort to compost yours. Not just for fun, but for the sake of the planet. In America, nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkin are grown every year. 1.3 billion of those pounds end up in the landfill, primarily thanks to Halloween. In the U.K., just last year, a similar study found that 8 million of the 10 million pumpkins grown in the area were tossed in the garbage post-holiday. That’s a wild amount of food waste.
There are a couple of ways to avoid this.
Dutch language learners are desperate to practice. And the Dutch are (almost) more proud of their native tongue than of their cheese. So what’s the problem?
‘Oefenen, oefenen, oefenen’ (practice x 3): behold the mantra I impart to all my students.
That’s all fine, but it’s a well-known problem that—apart from their faithful teacher—there’s hardly anyone here to practice Dutch with.
Most people in the Netherlands speak English and are eager to show it off.
‘I start in Dutch,’ Kylie from Australia shares with the group, ‘they reply in English, I persist in Dutch, they persist in English. In the end, they always win.’
The other students murmur in unison.
Kylie is desperate to know: ‘Is my Dutch really that bad?’
‘It’s not you, it’s us,’ I try to console her.
Yes, I too, the faithful teacher, do not always speak Dutch with foreigners I encounter. In my defense: I usually do start in Dutch, while they persevere in English. (But that aside.)
Even spouses decline to speak Dutch. Speaking English is simply faster, and speed is apparently always of the essence.
Also in love.
Even in love.
Some students come up with creative solutions, like the Swedish Kitte: ‘When me and my boyfriend walk the dog together, we always speak Dutch.’
That sounds very promising to the group.
‘Which comes down to once a week at the most,’ she grins.
Other solutions, like speaking Dutch while cooking together, also quickly fall through.
In short, outside of class, chances for active oefenen are virtually nil.
‘Until,’ Kris from the States remarks, ‘you get included in a circle of Dutch friends. Usually your partner’s.’
Her classmates leap up. Could there be a way out of this deadlock?
In the 1970s, a new contraceptive entered the market, only to be banned four years later. Caroline Criado Perez tells of the little-known scandal that changed history
This increased risk of infections was apparently all to do with the string which trailed down from the device. This string, which was there to make it easier to remove the Dalkon Shield, was made up of lots of thin filaments wrapped up together “like a cable consisting of several smaller wires wrapped together” and encased in a nylon sheath. The trouble was, the sheath was open at either end, meaning bacteria could travel up into the little gaps between the filaments, and then the tail acted as a “wick,” bypassing the antibacterial properties of the cervical mucus, and transporting the bacteria into the uterus.
This resulted in sceptic pregnancies and other severe infections, bacterial infections of the placenta and foetus, infertility and death. According to a Washington Post article from 1985, one year after the Dalkon Shield was finally officially recalled in 1984, 90,000 US women suffered from major complications from which many of them would never recover. 13,000 women were rendered infertile. And at least 21 women were dead.
A British artist living in LA, Julia Pott shares her projects as they come to life. This week, she explores “walking corpse syndrome”
Continuing this month’s theme of cutifying the morbid and poetic, I took these cues and drew some adorable trick-or-treaters. I took a lot of inspiration from the absolute corker ‘It’s Halloween’ by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner.
Particularly pleased with little chef mouse, who may or may not think they are a stick of butter.
The Active Voice with Hamish McKenzie on Substack Reads: In case you missed it, we launched a new podcast, and episode one—with short story writer and author George Saunders—is now live.
Substack Reads is a weekly roundup of writing, ideas, art, and audio from the world of Substack. Posts are recommended by staff and readers, and curated and edited from Substack’s U.K. outpost.
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