Bookforum Interview with Tom Bissell


In case you missed it—it was first posted a couple months ago—Bookforum has an excellent interview with Tom Bissell:

So here’s my thing: I think you can only be a snob about one thing. And I’m a snob about fiction. Well, maybe snob is the wrong word to use, but you know what I mean. My standards are unwaveringly high when it comes to literature. But I have terrible musical taste, terrible movie taste. I will happily watch the most brain-dead sitcom. People who are uniformly snobby in that way—we call those people friendless. Because what happens to people is they become rageballs. If your standards are that high across every aesthetic field, how can you walk down the street without just being in a state of constant indignation? It would drive you crazy.

I probably also tend toward the “snobbish” when it comes to literature, but my favorite movie of all time is Back to the Future. (Which is not to say that BTTF is not a pretty damn fine movie that holds up under more intense scrutiny. I’ve been meaning to write an essay on this.) Bissell’s broader point: it’s okay to have high tastes in certain areas, which is probably inevitable. But to subject yourself to excessively high standards across the board is to become a “rageball.” One has to have fun with art at some point, right? I pity the person who is too snobby to get all excited over Taken 2.

By the way, I’m reading Bissell’s fine collection Magic Hours right now. Highly recommended if you dig essays.

Bonus link: His interview with The Rumpus.

Reviewing books.

My reading recently has been concentrated on reviewing. While I try to write up something  for most anything semi-relevant/recent/interesting for this blog, I am also reviewing books for a few different places:

    • My write-up of A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers should be appearing soon in the Lincoln Journal-Star. This book I quite enjoyed—I tend to agree with Kakutani’s review in the NY Times, mostly.
    • The Ploughshares Blog is running my short review of Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case, which is a must read for anyone interested in the Nobel laureate poet.
    • I have to yet to read the thriller Fireproof by Alex Kava for the LJS. (Yes, I enjoy a good —as my high school AP Lit teacher would call it—”popcorn book.”)
    • I am also reviewing Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, which I’m excited about, as the first page was fantastic.
    • And lastly in September I’ll have a review of another Nebraska-related book for L Magazine.

Reviewing books is fun. Although I am also reading, for my own edification, Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation—he’s quickly becoming a favorite essayist, right up there with John Jeremiah Sullivan—as well as Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, because I need to understand evolution better (at least on a fundamental level).

As a final note: clicking through any of the links on this site, and buying the book off Amazon, benefits me/the site. (I get a small cut.) So if you’re interested in any of these titles, please click through the links. This can help me justify spending so much of my time reading/reviewing, which, honestly, doesn’t bring in much income.

.Mail – Tobias van Schneider

This is a very cool concept—a rethinking of email by Tobias van Schneider. I must say, I would definitely like a mail app that looked like this—and had these kinds of features. This is roughly, anyway, how I organize my email as it is. (I use Sparrow when I can.) I especially like the management of attachments; this would be killer for me at work, where I am stuck with Outlook. Mr. van Schneider’s broader point is a good one: when we spend so much time each day on email, why does the experience suck so much?

Sign me up.

The Alternate Endings to “A Farewell to Arms.”

The New York Times notes that a new edition of A Farewell to Arms is going to contain all of Hemingway’s famous 39 47 revised endings:

For close readers of Hemingway the endings are a fascinating glimpse into how the novel could have concluded on a different note, sometimes more blunt and sometimes more optimistic. And since modern authors tend to produce their work on computers, the new edition also serves as an artifact of a bygone craft, with handwritten notes and long passages crossed out, giving readers a sense of an author’s process. (When asked in the 1958 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton what had stumped him, Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”)

This will be interesting to read—A Farewell to Arms was one of those novels that inspired me as a teenager, and I haven’t re-read it since. “Getting the words right”—typical Hemingway.

Whose House is This?: Toni Morrison’s Home.

“The crazy part is our last name,” the protagonist of Home states. “Money. Of which we had none.” His name is Frank, Frank Money, and the book opens with him waking in a mental hospital—without any knowledge of how he checked in. Frank, as it turns out, still doesn’t have any money; he served in the Korean War, returned home, and, suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (an unmentioned but obvious fact throught the novella), has yet, in any sense of the term, to figure out where he is. A letter from a friend of Ycidra, his sister, sets him on a path back to the place he never wanted to return: his home of Lotus, Georgia.

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Some extraordinarily brief thoughts on the SCOTUS ACA decision.

By now, everyone is aware of the court’s decision in National Federal of Independent Business v. Sibelius, otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act constitutional challenge. I’m no legal scholar—the best reaction and commentary can be found at the SCOTUSBlog and The Volokh Conspiracy, in my opinion—but I did get a chance to read the Constitutional portions of the case’s opinion, which I ultimately found to be persuasive (at least to the extent that the Court had no choice but to uphold the mandate as a constitutionally-exercised power under the Taxing Clause).

I have to share a small anecdote, to give some due credit: During the beginning of the suit, I spoke with my former Constitutional Law professor, Eric Berger (who was quoted in a recent story about the outcome). Professor Berger, I must say, called this from the beginning. Of course it’s constitutional, he said to me, it’s a tax, and Congress can tax nearly without limits under the Constitution. In essence, the Commerce Clause argument, which was the crux of the states’ case on this issue (and which it should be noted Roberts and four other justices adopted, wholesale), did not end up matter. Ultimately, what is most impressive about Roberts’ opinion—besides his easy and readable style—is that it is obvious his politics push him the other direction. Finally, a justice who seems to be finding a case that does not conveniently comport with his/her politics. (Yes, there are many decisions they make as such, but usually not on this scale.) Personally, I probably lean toward the argument that the ACA was still Constitutional under the Commerce Clause, but I can understand why the Court might have found otherwise.

You can read the opinion here.

A short list of big books I have used to kill spiders around my house

We’ve been getting a decent amount of spiders lately. Big, heavy hardbacks do have some uses—it’s not like I was going to swing my iPad at any eight-legged intruders.

Update: Another one to add, because it was handy at the time:

If People Really Wanted Moral Leadership, He’d Give Them Moral Leadership: Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland.”

Not long after Richard Nixon’s White House crimes were finally coming to light—as Woodward and Bernstein uncovered them fact by fact, link by link—The New Yorker ran a brilliant cartoon. Two men, sitting at a bar. One says to the other: “Look, Nixon’s no dope. If the people really wanted moral leadership, he’d give them moral leadership.” Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein is why that cartoon was, in a nutshell, right.

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Profile of Sergio De La Pava.

I can’t recommend this profile of self-publishing success Sergio De La Pava (at The Millions) enough.

What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?

Or perhaps the author’s bio says it all: “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” A Naked Singularity has been on my to-read list for a while; I’ve been reading about him over the last several months, and each thing I’ve seen has only piqued my interest more. With the prices of the XLibris editions of A Naked Singularity the way that they are, I should have jumped on a copy when I had the chance.

The Queue.

While work has, of late, been busy enough that I have not had much of an opportunity to put forth much content here, I’ve queued up a number of interesting-looking pieces to read, including this one on book reviewing over at the Awl.

Fortunately I have gotten word that I have two articles appearing in print (yes, actually in print) this month. I’m also attempting to finish up reading a book I’ll be reviewing soon. Otherwise, I’ve been distracted by reading David Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession) and Toni Morrison (her latest, Home, which I may also write up).