Riding the Rails

Paul Theroux writes in the Guardian about the inspiration for two of his best-loved travel books, The Old Patagonian Express and The Great Railway Bazaar. As usual, his great admiration for the folks he meets around the world is connected to a certain weariness, a realization that travel is a lot of being held up, a lot of standing around and waiting:

Air travel is very simple and annoying and always a cause of anxiety. It is like being at the dentist’s; even the chairs are like dentists’ chairs. Overland travel is slow and a great deal more trouble, but it is uncomfortable in a way that is completely human and often reassuring. The mood of The Old Patagonian Express, which is at times sombre, was the result of my knowing Spanish. It was easy for me to be light-hearted when I travelled to write The Great Railway Bazaar. I had little idea of what people were saying in Japanese and Hindi. But speaking to people in their own language – hearing their timid turns of phrase, or the violence of their anger, or the idioms of their hopelessness – could be distressing.

A New Complaint

NPR revisits Philip Roth‘s Portnoy’s Complaint for no particular reason that I can see. (Not that I’m complaining.) The relevant Roth quote, dusted off from a 2005 interview: “I think they were shocked and outraged by the revelation of brutality — brutality of feeling, brutality of attitude, brutality of anger. ‘You say all this takes place in a Jewish family?’ That’s what was shocking.”

Roundup: Great Plains Drifter

  • Laurie Muchnick, writing at Bloomberg News, has a guide to some recent Brooklyn lit.
  • Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff nicely ties–coils, even–together the multiple authors who’ve obsessed over Nikola Tesla.
  • Kent Haruf (Plainsong) and photographer Peter Brown discuss their book about the Great Plains, West of Last Chance, at the Rocky Mountain News. (The Photo-Eye Web site has some sample images, which call to mind Richard Misrach‘s dusty western landscapes, though Brown’s photos of people are compelling as well.)
  • If you’re in Mississippi next weekend, the Oxford Conference for the Book has an interesting lineup of readings. The conference theme is the work of Zora Neale Hurston, though the schedule looks to be wide-ranging–the Jack PendarvisSusan Choi reading in particular looks like fun.
  • Michael Cunningham isn’t interested in what Michiko Kakutani has to say: “I don’t read that shit. Any of it. The good reviews or the bad,” he told an audience at Boston’s Northeastern University. “The bad ones feel like they’re true and the good ones feel like you just fooled that one reviewer.” (Kakutani said that Cunningham’s 2005 novella collection, Specimen Days, “reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise….nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.”)

Disaster Lit

The Literary Saloon points to a new online magazine, Triple Canopy, an arts-and-literature publication whose design stakes out an interesting middle ground between dull seas of text and clunky PDFs. One of the more interesting features in issue No. 1 is “Thinking Through Images,” in which photographer Craig Kalpakjian and editor Sarah Kessler discuss the intersection of imagery, disaster, and literature. In particular, they look at Three Mile Island, a meteor crash in Siberia, staring directly into the sun–that last not a disaster per se, but the two find a way to connect it to Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, and there’s some commentary on Thomas Pynchon and Will Self in there as well. The conversation is a tad pretentious, but Kalapkjian’s images are compelling, and the conversation is worth a look.

The Man America Loves to Hate

Robert Gottlieb, writing in the New York Review of Books, uses the Library of America’s release of a collection of John Steinbeck‘s later writings to reassess his legacy. Gottlieb argues that much of Steinbeck’s work is actively awful, and that in the late-period stuff was among the worst offenders. But while the piece doesn’t quite state it as a theme, floating in there is an argument that the more journalistically Steinbeck behaved, the better he was. Gottlieb writes:

His finest work is almost always reportorial. Although he didn’t (as was frequently misreported) go to Oklahoma to observe the migrant Okies as they set out on their hegira to the West, he did spend weeks with them in California—on the road, in their camps. At first he was working as a journalist to air their desperate situation, but quickly he realized that here was the material for the major novel he felt ready to write….

The Grapes of Wrath is a vertiginous conjunction of sweeping, irresistible narrative and highfalutin theorizing. That readers in 1939 tolerated the latter is testimony to the power of the former—and to the readiness of America to be affected by the terrible story of the Joads. With the book’s overwhelming success—it was the best-selling novel of the year, won the Pulitzer Prize, etc.—and the further impact of John Ford’s impressive film version, which appeared in movie houses only months after the book’s publication, Steinbeck graduated from being an admired young writer to worldwide acceptance as a major figure in American literature.

The New Pearl

At Nextbook, novelist Jennifer Cody Epstein calls for a reassessment of the works of Pearl S. Buck. Epstein argues on behalf of Buck’s best-known work, The Good Earth, but the essay mainly focuses on Buck’s 1948 novel, Peony, about the shrinking population of Chinese Jews in the country. Epstein writes:

Peony also offers a glimpse into what makes Pearl Buck so exceptional among American writers. There’s her extraordinary eye for cultural detail; the almost effortless translation of Eastern culture and practice into tales that are not only factually accurate, but entirely sympathetic to a Western audience. There is her relentless championing of the oppressed, and her unabashed (and religiously unbiased) distrust of triumphalism in any form. In Peony, this is manifest in the old and (not coincidentally) blind rabbi who rants against “the heathen” and steadfastly maintains the unique role of the Israelites. “God has chosen my people,” he cries, “that we may eternally remind mankind of Him, Who alone rules. We are gadfly to man’s souls.” They are words that might well have been uttered by Absalom Sydenstricker, Buck’s missionary father, who for more than half a century tirelessly (if unsuccessfully) urged Chinese men and women to embrace Jesus.

Young Lions Announced

Like a lot of people, I’m pretty much exhausted with hearing about literary awards–there’s nothing like starting a litblog to find out just how many of them are out there. So I wouldn’t have much to say about the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award (given to writers under 35), except for the last book on the list of finalists:

Ron Currie, Jr., author of God Is Dead (Viking, 2007)

Ellen Litman, who wrote The Last Chicken in America (Norton, 2007)

Peter Nathaniel Malae, who penned Teach the Free Man (Swallow Press, 2007)

Dinaw Mengestu, author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2007)

Emily Mitchell, who wrote The Last Summer of the World (Norton, 2007).

Mitchell’s The Last Summer of the World, a novelization of the life of photographer Edward Steichen, was one of my favorite novels of 2007, and I don’t recall it making much of a noise when it came out. (I made a brief peep about it in City Paper.) Anything that helps bang the drum for it, I’m for, even if it demands an evening with Ethan Hawke.

The Creeps, Part 2

UCLA’s news service fills in a little more of the backstory regarding Robert Montgomery Bird‘s Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself, an unusual novel first published in 1836 and recently reissued by New York Review Books. (I blogged about it a month ago.) This quote, from the UCLA prof who discovered the book, Christopher Looby, pushes the book a little higher up the to-read pile:

“‘Sheppard Lee’ feels more like an example of magical realism or postmodernism than antebellum literature,” said Looby, who has taught at UCLA since 2001. “It seems like it could have been written today. It’s really ahead of its time.”
Teasingly, NYRB editor Edwin Frank suggests in the story that I could get to the task right now–thanks to the book being in the public domain, it should be readily available online. Not quite: Nothing on Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive (though they have some of his other works). There’s a complete edition of Volume 2 on Google Books, but only a limited preview of Volume 1.


New West interviews Benjamin Percy, author of the story collection Refresh, Refresh. Percy’s stories are largely set in Oregon, and he tees off on Californians invading his turf, in much the same way California gets invaded by the rest of the country:

I don’t dislike [California]. I dislike the people who leave the state and set up shop in Oregon, bringing with them their pastel shorts and too tan skin and gleaming golf clubs. They’re parasitic. They sell their coastal homes for several million, then come to Oregon to retire, making it into their playground. Consider Bend. When I lived there, the population clocked in at 16,000. Now, ten years later, the population is 70,000, many of them Californians. They raze forests and lay down golf courses and build up these faux-rustic iron-and-timber homes with antler chandeliers in the foyer and boot-shaped mugs in their kitchen cabinets and $1,000 Pendleton blankets draped over their $10,000 leather couches set before their river-rock fireplaces. They plunk down a Starbucks, a sushi restaurant, a Saab dealer, and before you know it, property taxes are through the roof and everybody who originally lived in the community has to move out because they can no longer afford it. Damn it.