Links: Government Work

Propaganda alert: America.gov, a Web site of the State Department, is publishing essays from the latest edition of its eJournal USA, which this month focuses on multicultural aspects of American literature. Among those included are Ha Jin (whose excellent essay collection The Writer as Migrant is excerpted), Marie Arana, Gerald Early, and Akhil Sharma.

Responding the Stuart Everscelebration of American English in the Guardian, D.G. Myers has a few thoughts on how the language shifts depending on whether you’re in the South or whether you’re Philip Roth.

Harriet E. Wilson, author of what’s presumed to be the first novel by an African American woman, 1859’s Our Nig, was recently learned to be a hair-product entrepreneur.

Wyatt Mason follows up on the Joseph O’Neill firmament kerfuffle not once but twice.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Ian McEwan studies how John Updike invented Rabbit Angstrom’s middle-class nobility: “Harry’s education extends no further than high school, his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, and yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure, and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, “and not chop them down to what you think is the right size.”

Lastly, if your reading choices are largely dictated by the number of awards a book has pulled in, this should come in handy.

Weiland on State by State

Matt Weiland talks up the new collection he edited with Sean Wilsey, State by State, with the Rake, in the process pointing out what’s both good and bad about the book:

We wanted to make a book as cacophonous and messy and interesting as the nation itself, and that meant allowing writers to do their own thing and go off their own way. It’s kind of the way it feels driving across the country – wind in your hair, and windows rolled down, and everything – and you just bump into different landmarks and different topography and different sorts of people.

So we wanted different sorts of writers, too. Not just novelists, but also journalists and graphic novelists, and we have a musician, and a filmmaker, and of course a cook. We also wanted it to vary in terms of the style of the pieces. There’s Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant piece about New York, for instance, which is in the form of dramatic dialogue. We had no idea he was going to do that. It was terrific. And the unlikeliest piece, I think, was Craig Taylor’s. He wrote about Delaware, and it’s an oral history, like Studs Terkel’s great books.

He’s spot-on about Taylor’s piece, and it may say something that the best piece in a book about America was written by a Brit. As I pointed out elsewhere, the better essays in State by State are the reported ones, and on that front the pieces by fiction writers tend to be letdowns (Myla Goldberg and Jhumpa Lahiri being, surprisingly, the worst offenders). But more than anything else the book is a bit of a mess—for every nicely turned piece by Ha Jin or Alison Bechdel there’s a clunker, none worse than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh‘s odd Ugly American piece, for which the state of South Dakota deserves an apology. (“‘Look at us,’ I shouted. ‘We’re trout fishing in South Dakota!'”)

Labor Day Reading: Ha Jin’s First House

Looking to find something appropriate to post for Labor Day—and less grim than, say, an excerpt from The Jungle—I was drawn to a bit of an essay by Ha Jin in the new collection State by State. Inspired by the WPA guides to individual states, editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey tapped 50 writers to contribute an essay each. (An interview with Edward P. Jones covers Washington, D.C.) Jin’s piece is on Georgia, where he first lived when he immigrated from China. For anybody who’s read his most recent novel, A Free Life, the essay will have a familiar ring—the stubborn urge to make a living and improve one’s station, the fixation on reading and education, the candor about money. That last point is critical. Jin’s one of the few writers in the collection—maybe one of the few major American writers working today—who’s so open about it costs to live in this joint, and he’s perfectly willing to attach dollar signs to the discussion. That candor pulls double duty for Jin—it emphasizes his outsiderness, but calls attention to an urge to assimilate. Here, Jin discusses buying his home in 1993, just after taking a job at Emory University:

We paid $84,000 for our home, which had three small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a half-finished basement, and a carport. With few exceptions, my colleagues all lived in bigger houses closer to Emory. We bought such a modest place because I wasn’t sure if I could hold my job for long, and didn’t want to take out a big mortgage. I was hired to teach poetry writing, which was a position I felt I had gotten by luck. I had never attended a poetry workshop and had no idea how to fulfill my role as a poet in residence. Poets in other parts of the country often asked me, “Who’s the poet at Emory?” The could not imagine it was me. I felt I might lose my job at any time. Once, I even blurted out to my boss, Frank Manley, a tall, flat-shouldered man in his early sixties, who was the director of our creative writing program, “I will stay in Georgia even if I don’t get tenure.”

“Why?” He smiled, narrowing his eyes.

“Because life is easier down here.”

“Indeed it is.”

Frank drove a pickup truck and owned a small farm, where he didn’t grow anything. He went there every week just to write.

I’ll be taking the holiday seriously tomorrow. Back Tuesday.

Roundup: Money Changes Everything

A Lansing, Mich., TV station covered last week’s summit of Michigan-bred authors Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane—nice to see this kind of thing mentioned on the nightly news, even if the anchor offers a very puzzling mispronunciation of “McGuane.”

Donald Ray Pollack‘s Knockemstiff is being met with positive reviews in England, though I trust nobody there thinks the short-story collection is a window into contemporary American life.

Which might be the case with Ethan Canin‘s America America.

The Washington Post Magazine dedicates its feature well to personal essays by Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Safran Foer, Julia Glass, and Ha Jin. I gravitated toward the last one, in which Jin recalls his very earliest experiences in America; for anybody who was deeply struck, as I was, by A Free Life, it’s a must-read:

For new arrivals in America, there was always the sinister attraction of money. Suddenly one could make $4 or $5 an hour, which was equal to a whole week’s wages back home. If you were not careful, you could fall into the money-grubbing trap. Some Chinese students didn’t continue with their graduate work because they couldn’t stop making money. One fellow from Shanghai started working part time in a museum on campus but soon stopped showing up in his lab in the physics department, dropped out of graduate school within a semester, and began taking courses to learn how to sell real estate. Another in American studies, who loved teaching as a profession, could no longer write his dissertation after taking a clerical job in a bank — sometimes he put in more than 60 hours a week, the overtime even harder to resist.

Roundup: Strange Cargo

Edward P. Jones still isn’t working on another novel. After a reading at Boston University last month (video here, which also features Catherine Tudish and Ha Jin), he told the audience, “even if I were, it’s hard to talk about that kind of thing. It’s like you’re pregnant, and somebody talks about the future of your child, at 5, at 10, at 15, but all you’re hoping for is happiness and health. You can’t think much beyond that.”

I hadn’t heard about the Kinky Friedman precedent until I read an interview with Jonathan Miles in USA Today. Miles talks about his new novel, Dear American Airlines, which didn’t get much static from the carrier thanks to Friedman’s Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola. Not that he wasn’t concerned: “American seems euphonious and iconic,” he says. “‘Dear JetBlue’ doesn’t work as well.”

Blogging from the Hay Festival, John Freeman notes that Lorrie Moore was asked by an audience member whether the United States is more receptive to short-story writers. Jhumpa Lahiri comes in handy in answering that question these days:

America has annual anthologies, such as the Best American Short Stories, which regularly sell over 100,000 copies a year, as well as prizes for stories and workshops galore. Occasionally a collection strikes a cord and people buy it. Ethan Canin’s The Emperor of Air was a bestseller, as was Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection, “Unaccustomed Earth,” which is tremendous, debuted on the “New York Times” list at number one (you can read an extract here).

Lahiri’s phenomenal success in the form is still, of course, an aberration. In response to the publisher’s question from the audience, Moore ultimately argued that Lahiri’s book of stories was such a phenomenal success because the publisher believed in it (and because it’s also a very good book).

NBCC Winners

For what I imagine was the first time in history, the announcement of finalists in the National Book Critics Circle annual awards was about as sophisticated as the Golden Globe Awards. The finalists are listed below. (The NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass, liveblogged the whole thing.) Following that list is the ballot I submitted; not much overlap. (I considered The Rest Is Noise to be a nonfiction book, more a critical history than a book of criticism, and I thought of Brother, I’m Dying more as a reported personal history than an autobiography, but making tough calls like those is what the NBCC is for, I suppose.)

Autobiography
Joshua Clark, Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone, Free Press
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying, Knopf
Joyce Carol Oates, The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982, Ecco
Sara Paretsky, Writing in an Age of Silence, Verso
Anna Politkovskaya: Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia, Random House

Nonfiction
Philip Gura, American Transcendentalism, Farrar, Straus
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, Oxford University Press
Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Doubleday
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, Doubleday
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, Thomas Dunne BKs/St. Martin’s

Fiction
Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, HarperCollins
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Riverhead
Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men. Dial Press
Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter. HarperCollins
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher, S. & S.

Biography
Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, Yale University Press
Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton, Knopf
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison. Knopf
John Richardson, The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Knopf
Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press

Poetry
Mary Jo Bang, Elegy, Graywolf
Matthea Harvey, Modern Life, Graywolf
Michael O’Brien, Sleeping and Waking, Flood
Tom Pickard, The Ballad of Jamie Allan, Flood
Tadeusz Rozewicz, New Poems, Archipelago

Criticism
Acocella, Joan. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Pantheon
Alvarez, Julia. Once Upon a Quniceanera, Viking
Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream, Metropolitan/Holt
Ratliff, Ben. Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus
Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus

Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Sam Anderson — winner

Finalists:
Brooke Allen
Ron Charles
Walter Kirn
Adam Kirsch

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award
Emilie Buchwald, writier, editor, and publisher of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis

My ballot: 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY
1. Shalom Auslander, “Foreskin’s Lament” (Riverhead)
2. Stacey Grenrock Woods, “I, California” (Scribner)
3. Robert Stone, “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” (Ecco)
BIOGRAPHY
1. David Michaelis, “Schulz and Peanuts” (HarperCollins)
2. Dennis McDougal, “Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times” (Wiley)

FICTION

1. Ha Jin, “A Free Life” (Pantheon)
2. Daniel Alarcon, “Lost City Radio” (HarperCollins)
3. Vendela Vida, “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” (Ecco)
4. Junot Diaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Riverhead)
5. Andre Aciman, “Call Me by Your Name” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
NONFICTION
1. Edwidge Danticat, “Brother, I’m Dying” (Knopf)
2. Alex Ross, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
3. Ann Hagedorn, “Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919” (Simon & Schuster)
4. Paula Kamen, “Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind” (Da Capo)
5. Peter Schmidt, “Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action” (Palgrave Macmillan)