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).

What Denis Johnson and Hamlin Garland Have in Common

What do Denis Johnson and Hamlin Garland—two writers seemingly otherwise unrelated—have in common?

Johnson is the lit-famous author of  Tree of Smoke: A Novel and Jesus’ Son: Stories. Hamlin Garland used to be quite famous, but now rarely appears outside of footnotes in anthologies. Johnson’s Train Dreams: A Novella was a Pulitzer finalist this year; Garland won the Pulitzer in 1922.

I recently read Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads. With no particular reason, I then turned to Train Dreams (after plowing through The Sisters Brothers in record time). Anyway, after checking out TD from the library, I come to find a distinctive similarity between the two covers. Judge for yourself:

Apparently Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings make good cover art. Benton was a regionalist painter, born in Missouri, whose paintings fit both Main-Travelled Roads and Train Dreams. The cover of Johnson’s novella features “The Race (Homeward Bound),” which depicts a horse ostensibly attempting to beat a locomotive, John Henry-style. Garland’s short story collection, in an edition by my hometown University of Nebraska Press, has the painting “The Hailstorm,” which shows two farmers struggling against the elements.

Their use, if you’ve read the books, is fairly obvious. Train Dreams is the story of Robert Grainier, who struggles and eventually lives secluded as a luddite and hermit well into the mid-20th century. Main-Travelled Roads, Garland’s naturalist short story collection, contains stories of men (and women, too) attempting to eke out an existence in the harsh realities of the 19th century farm.

It’s really lovely when, as a reader, you stumble across these small connections between works you otherwise wouldn’t think linked. Both Train Dreams and Main-Travelled Roads are, by the way, worth a read.

Built Out of Loneliness: Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”

Skippy Dies, by Paul MurrayAbout halfway through Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, one of the schoolboy characters, Ruprecht, reconsiders the intracacies of his beloved String Theory:

Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.

The loneliness, Ruprecht believes (at least at this particular point in the novel) is a reflection of the subatomic, found in the universe’s constitutive open-ended strings.

Loneliness is this novel’s heart—even though the characters are all living in close proximity. And surely, poor Ruprecht, the candidate for the school’s Best Boy, is one of its most lonely: he does not have much going for him,“[a]part from being a genius.” This line seems, at first, ironic, but by the end of “Skippy Dies,” it ‘s evident that being a genius might not, in the end, amount to much at all.

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Anxiety is Omnivorous; or, Can Reading Ever Be Bad For You?

I would recommend  this fantastic piece over at Guernica. It’s about the anxiety of the writer Daniel Smith, which prompts many questions about anxiety generally. Somehow I missed this one (it was published a little less than a month ago).

But it’s a must-read.

Smith has written about anxiety for the New York Times and has a forthcoming memoir about his experience with anxiety, Monkey Mind. He also has a great website. It’s hard to imagine someone who knows more about the topic. His writing sounds like a little more intellectual version of Nerve by Taylor Clark (a version with a bit more—or at least more severe—personal experience). Said Smith, in the article:

“If I had money, and space, and glory, would I still be anxious? I believe I would be, yes. I’m certain I would. Anxiety is omnivorous. Or at least my anxiety is. It feeds on what’s available.”

Besides this being a great piece of journalism by Katie Ryder, the story features an interesting comment Smith made in the article about what was “available” for the anxiety to feed on. In part, it seemed, it was books:

He found that James, Faulkner, O’Connor, Cheever, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Pynchon caused the icicle in his chest. Hemingway, Bellow, Updike, Doctorow, and Styron melted it away.

Do some writers tend to produce anxiety in readers while others “[melt] it away”? Or it an entirely personal? Reading this made me remember a somewhat parallel discussion in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello:

Specifically, she [Elizabeth] is no longer sure that people are always improved by what they read. Furthermore, she is not sure that writers who venture into the darker territories of the soul always return unscathed. She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing.

The point I am considering is slightly different—slightly broader and probably dumber—than Elizabeth’s concern. Yet: What exactly is “bad” for a reader? Is there any consistency to it? Can’t we say that a book that’s “good” for someone is “bad” for another?  And if that’s true, then what are we supposed to then think of it? If TV melts people’s brains, why couldn’t certain books do something similar? Even—gasp—some literary fiction? Or is it simply a problem of venturing into certain territories (as Elizabeth seems to suggest) of the “desires”?

Obviously I certainly don’t have any answers to these questions. I like to think that constant reading is a method of self-improvement. At least, I suppose we should be careful with—as we would with what we eat—what we are putting into our bodies.

Essay on “Main-Travelled Roads” at The Millions.

My essay on the under-appreciated author Hamlin Garland is now live over at The Millions. It opens:

In 1887, Hamlin Garland, then a 27-year-old aspiring writer, traveled by train from Boston back to his family’s farm in Ordway, South Dakota. Having spent most of his life in the Midwest, and shuttling around the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Garland was familiar with agrarian life, but with his return, he had evolved: “The ugliness, the endless drudgery,” he later wrote, “and the loneliness of the farmer’s lot smote me with stern insistence.”

If you’ve not read Garland before, I’d recommend checking out some of the stories in Main-Travelled Roads. Many thanks to The Millions for publishing the piece. As the NY Times said, it’s truly the “indispensable” lit site.

Charles Olson and “The Art of Fielding”

Charles Olson

The scholar’s dream: the finding of a rare text that illuminates an author or a period of history, or that allows us to reconsider something we otherwise thought well-established. Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding, which I recently reviewed, contains such an event—an event, as it turns out, that was probably based on a real (and quirky) story. So far, at least in my perusal of commentary online about TAOF, this connection has seemed to escape the Internet’s notice.

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Hamlin Garland

I received word today that the best lit blog on the Internet, The Millions, is going to publish my essay on the (sadly forgotten) writer Hamlin Garland. I’m thrilled. I wrote the piece after stumbling on “Under the Lion’s Paw” in an anthology, and then picking up a used copy of Garland’s debut collection of stories, Main-Travelled Roads, published to acclaim in 1891, but now fairly obscure. Garland was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1922, and the stories that constitute the collection are actually pretty damn good (especially “Up the Coolly”—Garland wrote realist tales about midwestern farmers). Most of his works are in the public domain now, so you can read them for free on your iPad/Kindle/Nook/whatever.

So lots of thanks to the Millions.

Literary Boroughs: Omaha

Over at the usually-excellent Plougshares, the series Literary Boroughs makes a stop in Omaha:

It’s a terrific habitat for someone with a writerly sensibility, particularly in a recession: affordable housing, some quiet time, a culturally satisfying lifestyle, and a compassionate community willing to help you see your harebrained idea through to its fruition.

Including Jackson Street Booksellers (a must stop for me whenever I’m in town) was an obvious pick, as was the mention of one of Omaha’s best resident writers, Richard Dooling. Full disclosure: I know Rick and was a student of his during law school. White Man’s Grave is an superb novel, and if you have a Kindle/iPad, you should drop 99 cents and buy his short story “Bush Pigs.”