My Jane Gardam review in the Quarterly Conversation

My review of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat appears in the new Spring 2010 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

My review of Roth’s new novel on Identity Theory

My review of Philip Roth’s new novel The Humbling has been posted over at Identity Theory. Roth has written several of the best books I’ve ever read, and I revere him for his mastery of the art of fiction. But unfortunately, The Humbling leaves a lot to be desired.

My review of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial on PopMatters

PopMatters has published my review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann.

My review of Calvo’s Wonderful World in The Quarterly Conversation

My review of the Spanish writer Javier Calvo’s novel Wonderful World appears in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

Why Stephen Elliott writes

I’m a big fan of Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby, and I’m very much looking forward to picking up his new book, The Adderall Diaries, soon. Of late he’s also been editing The Rumpus, which has very quickly become one of the best literature and culture sites around. A couple weeks ago, he published a very fine essay of his own there: “Why I Write,” in which he addresses the question with straightforward and sincere eloquence.

The (nonprofit) future of news

Michael Massing has a terrific piece on the future of news in the New York Review of Books. (Thanks to Scott Esposito for pointing this one out).

The news business is in serious trouble these days, but Massing’s take is more optimistic than most. The reason? He (correctly, I think) identifies nonprofit business models (such as that of the Twin Cities’ own MinnPost) as the industry’s best hope going forward. Massing (a contributing editor for the Columbia Journalism Review) also talks about the phenomenal continued success of NPR, and points out the wisdom of their recent efforts to ramp up the depth and quality of their original local reporting.

Ambulance-chasing essays

As for popular culture, the essayist’s chronic invocation of its latest bandwagon fads, however satirically framed, comes off frequently as a pandering to the audience’s short attention span—a kind of literary ambulance chasing….There is something so depressing about this desperate mining of things in the air, such a fevered search for a generational Zeitgeist, such an unctuously smarmy tone of ‘we,’ which assumes that everyone shares the same consumerist-boutique sensibility….

That’s Philip Lopate, writing not about the depthless and ephemeral snark of so much of the writing on the web, but instead about “life-style” pieces in the pages of the periodicals of the 1980s. But I think it applies just as well to the blogosphere and the net in general, and it’s as good of a statement as any of the kind of writing that I try to avoid indulging in here. Here’s what Lopate (in “What Happened to the Personal Essay?”, from his 1989 collection Against Joie de Vivre) calls for instead:

One longs for any evidence of a distinct human voice—anything but this ubiquitous Everyman/woman pizzazzy drone.

Lopate (who has a new book on Susan Sontag, about which he was recently interviewed over at the Millions) does, indeed, write with “a distinct human voice” in his essays—he’s smart and funny without going for cheap shots or condescending, and has a real knack for spinning fairly inane subjects (such as shaving a beard or arguing with his landlord) into thoughtful and lively explorations of human behavior. He has a distinctly confessional impulse—the kind of thing that ordinarily bugs me in essays, and which has led me to keep a safe distance from the personal essay (and an even greater one from the memoir) in the past. But Lopate’s winning sense of humor makes the fact that he writes endlessly about himself more tolerable—as does his remarkable honesty, and his capacity for gentle self-mockery. And though he has a penchant for being cranky and contrary, there’s also always a very human warmth bubbling up from underneath—or, in some cases, right up at the surface, as in his wonderful essay “Chekhov for Children” (in the same collection), which made me want to stand up and cheer.

Recently I’ve been giving the personal essay a second chance, and (much to my surprise) I’ve been falling for the form headlong. As the whole genre is in some respects new to me (or at least seems like new to me again right now), I’ll probably be posting on essayists here a great deal in the relatively near future. If you have any recommendations or favorites, I’d be glad to hear about them.

Summer book reviews

My recent return to full time work has made it more difficult for me to continue to update this blog regularly. (For the past several months, I’ve been dedicating all of my writing time to working on material intended for publication elsewhere.) But, I’ve missed posting here terribly, and I intend to get back to it soon. In the meantime, here’s a list of the book reviews I’ve published since the last time I made a post. Check back soon for links to my reviews forthcoming in Identity Theory, ForeWord, PopMatters and other publications.

  • Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.
  • Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.
  • Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Reprinted by Powell’s Books, July 20, 2009.
  • Review of Ghosts by César Aira. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54).
  • Review of The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. ForeWord, May/June 2009.

The Informant: high crimes in my hometown

booksthumbiconI grew up in Decatur, Illinois, the one-time “Soybean Capital of the World,” home to almost eighty thousand people and also to ADM, one of the world’s most powerful (and least-known) multinational corporations. In central Illinois, ADM transforms the bountiful harvest of some of the world’s best farmland into artificial sweeteners, ethanol and biofeuls, food additives, industrial chemicals, and animal feed (among many other products). During the long reign of chairman and CEO Dwayne Andreas, ADM grew from a small grain company into an international agribusiness behemoth, and also came to wield tremendous political influence. Andreas was close friends with former vice president Hubert Humphrey, and in 1972 Andreas donated $100,000 to the liberal Democrat’s political campaign—the same year in which he gave President Richard Nixon $25,000 that would be used to finance the Watergate break-in. I can also remember seeing local news coverage of Mikhail Gorbachev stepping out onto the tarmac at the tiny Decatur airport—he’d come to my hometown to do business with Andreas.

For many years, ADM has reaped great profits by means of its tremendous political influence. Two of the company’s biggest businesses—ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup—would not be nearly so profitable (and perhaps not profitable at all) if it weren’t for massive government subsidies that have poured billions of dollars directly into ADM’s coffers. (For an outline of the basics of this story, see this Cato Institute report from 1995. You’ll also find insightful discussion of the politics of high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol, and of big agribusiness in general, in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

But for all its power, ADM could not prevent itself from getting hit with a $100 million fine for its participation in a price fixing conspiracy in the markets for citric acid and lysine (a biological product that promotes growth in livestock). In the early nineties, ADM executives met regularly with their Japanese, Korean, and European counterparts in order to reach agreements on prices and production volumes in lysine, and held similar meetings with producers of citric acid. Such agreements are blatantly illegal under antitrust law, because they permit companies to charge artificially high prices for their products. By fixing prices, ADM and its co-conspirators were effectively stealing many millions of dollars from their own customers.

Corporate price-fixing is normally extremely difficult to prove, but in this case, FBI agents were able to present prosecutors with hundreds of hours of price-fixing meetings secretly taped by an ADM executive named Mark Whitacre. In his absorbing and thorough 2000 book The Informant, the New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald tells the complex, bizarre, and utterly fascinating story of how Whitacre worked with the FBI for years, while also lying outrageously in order to cover up his own embezzlement of several million dollars. Part thriller, part character portrait, The Informant makes for thoroughly absorbing reading, and Eichenwald does a masterful job of drawing on interviews, tape transcripts, and other sources in order to place readers right in the thick of the FBI’s investigation into ADM.

It’s not the only book about the price fixing scandal; James B. Lieber’s Rats in the Grain also provides a well-written and incisive account. But Eichenwald’s book tells the story more thoroughly and in much greater detail, while at the same time often reading like a suspense novel—which is no doubt part of why Steven Soderbergh has recently made a film based on the book, starring Matt Damon, which will be released in theaters this fall. I’m eager to see it, and not only because I think The Informant will translate very well to cinematic adaptation. Soderbergh shot the movie in Decatur, and apparently took great care to ensure that the film’s production design is true to Central Illinois in the early 1990s. I’m looking forward to the experience of seeing the world of my own adolescence on the big screen.

But in the meantime: I’d highly recommend Eichenwald’s book.

My new review on PopMatters: Potato by John Reader

PopMatters has published my review of the journalist John Reader’s history of the potato, titled (surprisingly enough) Potato. If you’re going to read just one history of the potato, this probably shouldn’t be it.

“The beard makes the bard”: Poets ranked by beard weight

Via The Second Pass: at A Journey Round My Skull, Gilbert Alter-Gilbert offers “commentary” on The Language of the Beard, which he alleges to be a forgotten tome penned by “one Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881 – 1937)…a deipnosophist, clubman, and literary miscellanist with a special interest in tonsorial subjects.” I suspect this book does not actually exist—but this post is wonderful all the same. It’s had me smiling wide all evening.

Excerpted from the post:

There is a direct correlation between personal appearance and artistic proficiency and integrity, or what, in the case of the bewhiskered brethren of the literary fraternity, he elsewhere calls “poetic gravity” or beard weight. It might be said, in short, that Underwood’s motto is the beard makes the bard.

The post includes evaluations of a number of poets by the weight of their beards, as well as classifications of their beards by type (“Italian False Goatee,” “Queen’s Brigade,” “Garibaldi Elongated,” “Claus-esque”). On Underwood’s scale, Walt Whitman scores a relatively paltry 22—well behind William Cullen Bryant (43), whose “Van Winkle” style beard is impressively full, but whose poetry doesn’t quite measure up to Whitman’s in my book. Perhaps Underwood’s scale needs a little tweaking. But then again, what do I know? My own beard most likely wouldn’t even outweigh that of Sir Walter Raleigh.

My review of Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée in Rain Taxi

Rain Taxi has published my review of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée as a part of its Spring 2009 Online Edition.

My review of Amina Cain’s I Go To Some Hollow on PopMatters

PopMatters is now running my review of Amina Cain’s I Go To Some Hollow, a collection of unconventional and fleetingly lyrical short stories.

I Go To Some Hollow

I Go To Some Hollow

My review of Roche’s Wetlands on PopMatters

My review of Charlotte Roche’s controversial novel Wetlands has been posted on PopMatters.

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

My review of two new books by J. Robert Lennon on PopMatters

New on PopMatters today: my dual review of Pieces for the Left Hand and Castle by J. Robert Lennon, out simultaneously from Graywolf.

Lennons Pieces for the Left Hand

Lennon's Pieces for the Left Hand

A side note: I also recently read an earlier novel of Lennon’s called The Funnies, which I’d thoroughly recommend. It’s a bittersweet family comedy about a young artist coming to terms with the fact that his true talent isn’t for avant-garde sculpture, but instead for following his father’s trade in the daily comic strip business. When his father dies, he inherits his strip—which bears an unmistakable resemblance to The Family Circus—on the condition that he demonstrate to the people of the syndicate that he’s capable of handling it. This proves to be a much more difficult task than the protagonist expects, and Lennon treats his struggles with empathy, humor, and a fascinating attention to detail about the art of drawing and writing for the funny pages. I think it’s Lennon’s best novel, and it’s well worth seeking out.

Lennons Castle

Lennon's Castle

New review in The Quarterly Conversation

booksthumbiconThe Quarterly Conversation has just posted my review of the Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Me and Kaminski.

Unjustly overlooked Novel About My Wife

Emily Perkins’s Novel About My Wife recently won this year’s Believer Book Award, but has otherwise gone almost entirely unnoticed in the United States. I’m extremely glad that the folks at The Believer have now brought the book to my attention: Perkins has written a flat-out terrific novel, and I hope that the receipt of the prize will win her many more new readers.

Novel About My Wife is narrated by Tom, a Londoner and the father of a young child, in the aftermath of his wife’s death. As he looks back on the final months of their life together, Tom struggles to come to an understanding about what happened to Ann, and attempts to put himself in her head during the course of the events leading up to her death. I won’t go into the details of the plot, as I have no desire to spoil the novel’s spooky and emotionally fraught suspense for anyone. Suffice it to say that it’s an unusually involving book, and that I felt compelled to rush through the whole of it in under twenty-four hours.

emNovel About My Wife/em by Emily Perkins

Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins

Perkins’s novel is masterfully plotted, and she also does a fully convincing job of bringing Tom’s first-person voice to life on the page. More impressive still is the way she employs artful and often beautiful prose in order to capture all the subtleties of pitch and intensity in Tom’s emotional state as his life with Ann begins to unravel. The passage quoted below not only offers a lovely and well-observed peek into the everyday intimacy experienced by Tom and Ann, but also demonstrates the power of his love for her. In context—because we know that Ann will die, and Tom will never get to enjoy this kind of moment again—the scene is also shot through the desperation, fear, sadness, and grief. Perkins writes:

‘Oh, God, I’m so old to have a baby,’ Ann moaned from the bathroom in that half talking to herself, half talking to me voice that married people use….I loved that voice, I loved hearing Ann’s inner thoughts as they rose gently to the surface, a ribbon of intimate words floating out of her mouth on the bathroom steam and through the door to me, where I opportunistically sat, ostensibly waiting to clean my teeth but really living for that moment.

It’s a gorgeous passage, and only one of many in Perkins’s engrossing and moving novel.

Salon Interview with Charlotte Roche

booksthumbicon Over at Salon, Nina Powers interviews the German writer Charlotte Roche, whose first novel Wetlands stirred up a lot of controversy in Europe because of its extreme sexual and scatological frankness. My review of the book (which comes out in the United States on April 8 ) will run on PopMatters soon, so I won’t comment on it in any detail here. But, I think Powers does an excellent job with the interview, and gets to the heart of why the book has made so many people uncomfortable. These days it’s very difficult to shock anyone with explicit content alone; instead, Roche’s real provocation lies in insisting that readers who feel shocked or disgusted by her explicit discussion of her heroine’s bodily functions ought to carefully examine the nature of their responses.

Here’s Roche in the interview:

Very often, lately, people have come up to me and say “You look tired,” and I hate it. Women are supposed to always look fit and healthy and pretty. But everything that is sick and tired is all very human—and I think that being human is a big taboo.

My Essay on All About My Mother on PopMatters

filmthumbiconPopMatters celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with a sprawling multi-part feature on 62 of the most memorable films of 1999. I happily seized the opportunity to write about Almodóvar’s All About My Mother for the site, and you can read the resulting essay here (though you have to scroll down past the piece on Bringing Out the Dead to see it).

Kafka International Airport

Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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