Mark Athitakis Newsletter #39

Kids' stuff.

One of the first books I remember reading was one I discovered in my school library as a first or second grader: Gene Zion’s Dear Garbage Man, a 1957 tale of a sanitation worker who’s having second thoughts about whether to dispose of the junk he encounters on his route. He graces the truck’s grille with a horseshoe-shaped flower display; he ties sofas and mirrors and baby carriages to the top of the truck instead of shoving them into its “chewer-upper.” 

A short-lived detritus-redistribution scheme ensues, until the garbage man ultimately decides to get with the program and let junk be junk. I don’t remember exactly what I loved about the story, but I must have concluded that being a garbage man was a fun job---traveling through city streets, driving a big truck, meeting different people, picking up bits of their lives. I do know that after reading the book, I informed my father that I’d decided what I wanted to be when I grew up.

My father, a man not exactly quick to laughter, a man who stepped off a Greek merchant marine ship in Stockton, California, in the early 60s and then made a momentous decision not to get back on, laughed. All this time after coming to this country, all this hard work, and my son, he wants to be...a garbage man! (You have to say this in the beleaguered, heavily accented voice of the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the few things in that movie that isn’t an outright cartoon about Greek-Americans.) He traded on that story for a while at family get-togethers, much to my embarrassment. 

I suppose now I trade on it too. But what’s the point I want to make when I share it? The punchline usually is: Here’s a kid who for a moment dreamed of a career of menial labor, and made the amusing mistake of sharing that dream with a man who left his home country so his children could avoid doing exactly that. Whatever affection I might’ve felt for Zion’s character dissipated quick---in the same way he concluded that junk needed to be junk, I got in line and came to hold perfectly conventional upper-lower-middle-class opinions about garbage men (i.e., respectable and necessary labor, but nothing to aspire to). When we’re kids, we have flexible brains---we can look at something new with genuine curiosity, without whatever experience and social norms and biases we bring to it. As an adult, it takes a little more work.

The Dear Garbage Man story came to mind as I’ve been reading articles about the connections neuroscientists make between reading and empathy---a subject I’ve gotten a little fixated since writing about the matter for the Washington Post. Reading allows us to encounter other people, we’re told; it exposes us to experiences we wouldn’t otherwise understand, or which we fear. But does a reader automatically make that leap into others’ differences? Or do we just apply our assurances to whatever story we encounter, however different its characters might be? Perhaps the empathy literary fiction is supposed to stoke in us only goes in the direction of those who seem the most familiar to us, to those we’re already inclined to feel empathy with. (Which can change as we change. Every essay you’ll read about rereading novels make this point, about how a Jo person in childhood can become an Amy person as a grownup, though God knows why you’d do that.)

We can read a lot but still read poorly. In the Hedgehog Review, Mark Edmundson recently wrote: “All too often we read even literary texts for the message. Is the author on our side? Does his ideology line up with our own? Is the writer a good dues paying citizen of the progressive present? The urge to read for simple political content takes the one resource that might help us emerge from our current difficulties and turns it into part of the problem. It is also a form of reading for people who don’t really like reading, and want to short-circuit it with posturing and posing. It’s not real reading at all.” If reading a book helps us develop empathy, how empathetic are we if we decide what we’re going to take from a book before we’ve even cracked it open, or read it as if we haven’t bothered to?

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I wrote about Philippa K. Chong’s study of book critics, Inside the Critics’ Circle, for On the Seawall. I reviewed Ming Jen’s Little Gods for USA Today and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valleyfor the Los Angeles Times. Since I last newslettered, I helped select some of the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards, which will be announced in March. I chaired the NBCC’s autobiography committee this past year, and I spoke about the finalists with Five Books. (My opinions are my own, not the NBCC’s.)

Elizabeth Wurtzel left behind some last notes on love before she died last month. Lauren Oyler finds a note of hysteria in Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. Agnes Callard questions our attention-seeking social-media economy. Diane Cole revisits Mark Twain’s visit to the Holy Land. Colin Dickey considers the palindrome.

Thanks for reading. I’m still here, intermittently; I’m still on Twitter, intermittently. I’m slow to respond to emails but I’m grateful for the ones you send. 

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #38

Life is hard. Get an almanac.

Things, you may have heard, are awful. Impeachment hearings, climate change, upheaval in a host of countries, disappointing presidential candidates. Or, maybe they're not awful. Good books arrive, and smart people are around to discuss them; we are, at least, having impeachment hearings; around the world, people are endeavoring to face up to civil shortcomings. Or not. Or...not not?

Let's rephrase: Things, to be more precise, are the internet. And though my mood comes and goes with this, lately I've been feeling more exasperated with internet-argument follies, where somebody asks us to share food opinions and we then spend two days debating the nature of opinions, food, and sharing. I have brought this exasperation upon myself, I know. Last week Allison Kelley wrote a lovely piece in Slate about how she stalks a Facebook group in her nice Connecticut hometown from afar, basking in the picayune fussbudgetry of the locals. I too stalk a Facebook group about my nice Illinois hometown from afar, except the only local content is somebody advertising a dog-walking service. Otherwise it's full of aggressive and fact-challenged meme slinging over our current political environment. Attempts to correct matters of fact are routinely shouted down. Gestures toward detente are met with condescending I'll-pray-for-yous.

A few weeks back, in the midst of my funk over this, a publicist emailed asking if I'd like to receive a copy of the 2020 edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts. With embarrassing speed, I replied yes. A book with nothing but facts in it. Glory be.

If you're like me and haven't looked at an almanac since high school, you might be surprised at how satisfying it is, how much immediate comfort it delivers. A thousand pages of information, all true! Bless you, heart-crushingly dull chart of the National Home Price Index. Thank you, graph of favorite cell-phone use functions among U.S consumers. Handy, this list of birthdates and birthplaces of prominent living authors (Paula Hawkins, Harare, Zimbabwe, 8/28/1972). Here is confirmation that, yes, the Washington Nationals did indeed win the World Series this year. The NATO phonetic alphabet is there for me should I face some life-threatening or crossword-based emergency. If I need to know who won the two-man bobsled at the 1948 Olympics, it's there for me.

No, I do not really need to know Paula Hawkins' birthday. Yes, all of those things are readily findable via Google. But on moments when the internet feels like the tire fire behind the porn shop on the Superfund site, the almanac feels welcome---a walled garden, carefully manicured and useful. 

Except---except! Sorry, but there is an except. The garden metaphor prompted me to look up the data on greenhouse emissions and average global temperatures since 1880. (Not promising!) There is some comfort to be taken in the sheer existence of the data, in a place separate from the slapfights about it. But just as the plural of anecdote is not data, the plural of data isn't truth. Reading it recalled Stephen Pinker's 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, a charts-’n’-graphs lecture I dearly wanted to buy into, but which seemed stubbornly determined to ignore the role of human agency in improving our fate, and to consider the forces that might deny that agency, and to condescend to the violence, injustice, and so forth that serve as statistical anomalies in his book.

Ah well. Back to the internet, which informs me that the almanac itself has had a tough time of it lately. The New York Times and Time magazine have both abandoned their almanacs in the past decade. At my local Barnes & Noble, the only other reference almanac on offer is published by National Geographic, which produces nature-focused almanacs for adults and kids. (My son loves the latter and asks for new ones every year, even though there has been little to update on an annual basis about, say, otters.) The World Almanac soldiers on, its name the last remnant of the New York World, a newspaper that had a famously checkered relationship with the facts. But I trust it, even if it can only take me so far. 

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I wrote about Olaf Olafsson's disappointing thriller, The Sacrament, for USA Today.

Colin Dickey delivers a brief on fact-checking. Geoff Edgers revisits Altamont. Jeanne Marie Laskas recalls her friendship with Fred Rogers, artist. David Quammen considers the mosquito. Stephanie Burt considers the trans plotting in Frozen 2. Theater is a huge blind spot for me, but I took in Michael Feingold's and Christopher Bonanos' obituaries for critic John Simon as one might a train wreck; I'd call them appreciations, but he seemed to have lived his life as if determined to repel the form. Joshua Sperling looks at the meteoric rise of John Berger and his retreat from the success of Ways of Seeing.

Thanks for reading. I wrote a book that makes for a lovely stocking stuffer. I'm on Twitter, I guess. I don't love the internet, but I love getting your email: mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #37

Remembering the good stuff, with help.

It's something of a cliche among critics that whenever a stranger on a plane or at a coffee shop asks them to name their favorite book, they freeze up. Memories of hundreds upon hundreds of books, many of them beloved, vaporize in an instant. We're left gurgling something like, "Well, Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out," which is undoubtedly true but doesn't answer the question, and the only JCO book you liked all that much was them., but that was ages ago and wouldn't it read a little problematically now, and besides this person probably isn't asking to read a 600-page novel about Detroit race riots because, sheesh, they're just making conversation and the last book they read was The Shack and they didn't even finish it.*

Point is, though I'd like to say that titles instantly spring to mind around this time of year, when everybody is publishing book-of-the-year lists, I have to consult the record. The record is a thick black notebook that since---let's see here---December 6, 2012, I've filled with notations of each book I've read. The notebook is 250 pages, and in the nearly seven years since I started I've filled 70 pages; if the gods, actuarial and otherwise, are with me, I should be able to fill the whole book. A representative page:

I gather that Pamela Paul, editor of the New York TimesBook Review, not only keeps a similar log but has written an entire book about it. I have kept this information at arm's length because the idea of mining my own notebook for something that could fill a whole book seems impossible to the point of comedy. Clearly I have fallen short in my capacity to apply my imagination to this homely, falling-apart Moleskine. Scanning through it is largely a reminder of how much OK-ness one must sift through to get to the good stuff. If I were leading a different life, I might spend more time with just the good stuff---I'd certainly read more classics. But I like this life too, the sifting and sorting, the recognition of mediocrity, the better to recognize the stuff that tops it.

Now that much of my time is spent on 2020 books, here are the fiction and nonfiction titles that stuck with me during the year, in rough order of preference. Links to reviews where I wrote them.

Fiction:

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

Susan Choi, Trust Exercise

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Tim Murphy, Correspondents

Nell Zink, Doxology

Howard Norman, The Ghost Clause

Nonfiction:

Naja Marie Aidt, When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl's Book

Lydia Davis, Essays One

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House

Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, Sounds Like Titanic

Benjamin Moser, Sontag

Aleksandar Hemon, My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You

Mira Jacob, Good Talk

Lia Purpura, All the Fierce Tethers

Jess Row, White Flights

* I've found it useful to swing the question around on the person asking: "What do you like?" It helps you tailor a response, and, more importantly, buys you time.

*

I reviewed Michael Powell's Canyon Dreams, his chronicle of a year following a high-school basketball team on Navajo Nation in Arizona, for the Washington Post.

Amy Silverman discusses finding the right words to talk about mental disability. Carlos Lozada fillets that anonymous tell-some about the Trump administration. Charles McGrath connects Roth and Updike. Michael Chabon contemplates Star Trek from his father’s deathbed. Amanda Petrusich makes the case for Steely Dan (I've never been sold, but it's a fine piece anyway). Lauren Elkin catches up with French literary provocateur Virginie Despentes.

Thanks for reading. I'm on Twitter. I wrote a book. Email me: mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #36

Fear of plot.

So I'm reading Lonesome Dove. I’ve kept meaning to get to it, and I was finally moved to start it because I'd been reading Stephen Harrigan's engrossing history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing. And I was reading that because I'd been asked to do a Q&A with him at bookstore here in Phoenix. (A lot of Texas expats are out here; they ordered copies of Harrigan's 1,000-page book three at a time for friends after the event, like the register was a deli counter.) A lot of my reading life is predetermined by review assignments and prize judging, but I try to clear space for happy accidents. Larry McMurtry is my current happy accident.

I'd been a little intimidated by Lonesome Dove, for reasons that go beyond its heft. Partly it's because I knew it was a plotty novel, a novel where things happen, to characters. If you think that's a thing to be intimidated by, well, it’s not always a priority in contemporary literary fiction, which foregrounds style, milieu, structure, etc. Reading for character and plot, at least for me, requires a kind of gear shift---it's not harder, exactly, just different. (Charles Finch, a mystery novelist and fine critic, recently wrote about how he approaches plotting his novels, which can be as much of a challenge as the rhetorical gambits that more pomo authors engage in.) Nine hundred pages about a cattle drive, weaving multiple plot threads, could be a lot of fun, or very, very hard.

If you've read it, you know: It's pure joy, its characters sketched yet somehow full right from the start, and fuller as the story goes along. The plot paths are simple, but because so many people are on simple paths, the whole thing becomes complicated. I'm only halfway through and can only make slow day-to-day progress, but I understand why my late friend David Myers attempted to read the whole thing on release day in one sitting.

But my intimidation about plot stems from something else, which I hadn't thought about much lately, until I started Lonesome Dove. About 15 years ago I had a breakdown. Not the kind that puts you in a facility, but serious enough—-one that makes you quit the job you started a month prior because you're vibrating with anxiety every morning and avoiding conversation because you're not sure what's going to set off a panic attack. It's hard for me to explain, now, what set all that in motion, at least in the shortish space of a newsletter, but I know a few things. I'd left my previous job, which I'd come to hate; then I tried to make a go of it as a freelancer and worked on a book proposal; then, when neither of those things panned out, I took a job I shouldn't have taken. I was thinking too much about reputation and accomplishment, worried too much about being a Good, Successful Writer, and gave little thought to what "good" or "successful" might actually mean. All that, plus years of low-boil anxiety about desperately needing not to fail at something, meant things began boiling a little more fiercely, now that I'd failed at a bunch of things in succession. It was embarrassing to feel this way, yet the feeling was the feeling, and for a time it was inescapable. Inconsolable for reasons I couldn’t articulate, I'd become the sort of person people made concerned phone calls about.

There were interventions over those few months, friends and various elements of the mental health industrial complex. I was, in the broad spectrum of mental illness, fine; I'm better than fine now. But I don't want to dismiss where I was, either, because I wouldn't want to dismiss somebody facing something similar. It's agonizing to feel so adrift from oneself, so unsure of what your capacities as a person are (can I make it to the laundromat today? can I get into the shower this morning?), and uncertain when and if that feeling is going to stop. 

One the clearest measures of my adrift-ness during that time, which made me wonder whether I was truly going to be OK, was straightforward: I couldn't read. I could not pick up a book, look the words inside them, and process them for meaning. At my worst, the idea of a paragraph seemed impossible. How could you read all of a paragraph? How could writers write one, and then another? It was all I could do to process the headlines in the newspaper. If I was going to get better, the medical industrial complex would provide one measure of it. But reading a book would provide another.

The book that got me there, eventually, was a paperback somebody'd left in the lobby of my apartment building: Sidney Sheldon's The Sky Is Falling. (A little on the nose, Mark!) It's awful. Stating-the-obvious sentences, bad foreign accents, impossible turns of events, many of them: The Wikipedia summary of its plot is as long as the one for, let's see here, Lonesome Dove. And yet. Things were happening! To people! In a world where things happened to people. It was reassuring, to be in such a world. What a world to be in.

There are some easy but false conclusions I might draw here. No, I don't believe that genre fiction, or plot, has curative powers: Reading pretty much everything George Pelecanos has written has been fun, but his novels haven't consequenced my psyche very much. No, I don't think plot possesses some earthy nobility that elevates it above other elements of fiction---I still like a good rhetorical gambit. Maybe it's just that the book that finds you won't always have something to do with what you think you think about books. I can't recommend The Sky Is Falling, but I also can't deny that it's one of those novels that feel like I came to at just the right time, like The World According to Garp or Gilead or Call Me By Your Name. Maybe Lonesome Dove is that, too.

I've lucked into good books lately on the review beat: Carmen Maria Machado's memoir, In the Dream House, Shannon Pufahl's debut novel, On Swift Horses, and Dale Peck's story collection, What Burns, though the last one was more fun to think about than read. I also interviewed Andre Aciman.

Elsewhere: Roxane Gay recommends that traveling authors just check their damn bag. Stephanie Burt covers three poetry collections with a strong sense of place, including one of my favorite collections of the year, Jake Skeets' Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers. Agnes Callard rethinks parenting. Wyatt Mason catches up with LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Jennifer Howard (who recently launched a newsletter that I strongly recommend) explores the changing role of the public library. Neely Tucker dives into the Library of Congress' archives to explain how The Postman Always Rings Twice got its title. Alexander Chee delivers some common-sense advice on writing across difference.

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If I had more time I would've written a shorter newsletter; thanks for reading this one. I'm on Twitter. I wrote a book. Email me: mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #35

Redemption, redemption, redemption.

1. In his memoir The Fifth Inning, Washington, D.C., poet and baseball fan E. Ethelbert Miller tells a story about how baseball is an unfinished story. "In the fifth inning, you know, anything can happen. This could be a complete game. You count your blessings for surviving the fourth. The first hitter sends a ball deep to the warning track in left field. This brings your manager to his feet. He starts to pace in the dugout. He's afraid you're losing it. You look down at your feet and kick the rubber. You're afraid too, and it tips the next hitter off. One swing and you're down four. The next two hitters follow with a single and a double. It's over now. You might as well play catch in the backyard with the kids. The catcher asks the umpire for time and walks out to the mound. Here's comes your manager getting ready to ask for the ball. Inside your glove, you hold it and keep waiting for it to speak. The silence tells its own story, but the game keeps searching for an author. "

2. A trip to visit family in Chicago earlier this month cut into my reading time, but I'm still pretty much reading as usual. Still, I won't lie: As a fan of the Washington Nationals, who have somehow—amazingly, gratifyingly—made their way to the World Series, I may have done a better job of paying attention to baseball narratives than anything I've read on the page this month.

3. Here's one narrative: The "Nats fans aren't real fans" narrative. This one has crystallized around a D.C. actor who attended Game 4 of the NLCS at Nationals Park, where the Nats punched their World Series ticket. A TV crew caught the man after the win and asked him how long he'd been a Nationals fan. "Since today!" he cried. This prompted an NBC analyst to tut-tut that "This is why America hates its own capital."

4. Narrative theory related to this, based on six years living in the DMV: The "Nats fans aren't real fans" narrative is a proxy for the enduring "D.C. isn't a real city" narrative. D.C. isn't a real city because D.C. is full of federal workers, and you know what people mean when they say "federal workers" in a Breitbart accent. 

5. Or, to be more moderate about it, D.C. is a wonky company town that has an awkward relationship to traditional urban folkways. Alexandra Petri, who is a very funny commentator—though I can't forget that she once encouraged the internet to dunk on Donald Hall for no good reason—wrote a mashup that made much of the Nats' pennant-clinching game happening at the same time as the most recent Democratic presidential debate. The idea is that D.C. is a place that can't get its story straight when it comes to what kind of place it wants to be. "They hate us 'cause they ain't us," Cardinals fans like to say. What is "us," in D.C.?

6. This one reason why it's been hard to identify a great D.C. novel.

7. We always say a team "punches their ticket" to the World Series. Hero goes on a journey.

8. Or its inverse: Stranger comes to town. The Nats, who've longed struggled to make it past the first round of the playoffs, have now successfully entered uncharted territory.

9. In the sizzle reel MLB Network assembled to distill the Nats' season into four minutes, the word "redemption" is uttered three times, "exorcism" once. Christian narrative. And if you think that's too much to apply to baseball, you don't know baseball. Field of Dreams is just a reboot of the Gospels.

10. But baseball narratives are failure narratives too. Things end too quickly, things don't go right. A haiku by Miller, titled "Seasons": "Spring training again/Young players replace the old/The game is too short."

11. Former MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti: "The game begins in the spring... and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

12. Am I obsessed? Perhaps a little: I took in the Nats' NLCS-clinching game via three formats. I don't have cable, so I had to pursue other options. One: Gameday on Major League Baseball's website, which on the surface seems to blandly relate the game action, pitch by pitch. But in truth, Gameday trades in agonizing, quasipoetic ambiguity: "in play, no out"; "in play, run(s)"; "injury delay." I recall reciting Gameday's reports off my phone to a family full of Cubs fans during one of their playoff runs. Nothing makes a fan more anxious than uncertainty, and nothing stokes uncertainty like "in play, no out."

13: Donald Hall: "For those who love baseball, its nothings are something."

14: In addition to Gameday, I also had the Nationals' radio feed playing. I admire one of the playcallers, Dave Jageler, for his ability, using solely the intonation of his voice, to convey just how close to the warning track a well-hit fly ball went. At first his voice is deep and serious and fast, then higher and slower and lighter, anticipatory; then back to normal when the ball lands harmlessly in the fielder's mitt. In baseball, failure is the norm.

15. And lastly, Twitter, a home to fan service via the @MLB and @Nationals feeds, plus a variety of bad jokes, analysis, and irruptions of joy and despair. A fragmented narrative.

16. And fragmented further still, because of another thing: None of those three feeds were in sync. Gameday was slightly ahead of Twitter, which was slightly ahead of the radio feed. So I knew the Nats clinched via Gameday, but I kept my mouth shut because I had my 9-year-old son nearby. When the end of the story happened, I held my tongue. It wasn't my story to tell; I wanted him to hear it. (The voice is the Nats' other radio playcaller, Charlie Slowes.) No child ever bounced up and down on a living-room couch, jubilant, because of something they saw on Twitter.

17. Miller, one last time, for closure, because that happens in baseball sometimes:

Let me sit in the ballpark

cap turned backwards and praying

for a rally. I need the sun and sweat

to remind me how much I love the game. How each year

it comes down to the last inning,

the final out.

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For Majuscule Review, a new online magazine, I wrote a personal essay about Spy Notes, a 30-year-old satire of Cliffs Notes that skewered 80s Brat Pack writers; the book doesn't hold up, but rereading it was an opportunity to explore some of the ideas, good and bad, that got me interested in being a critic. Also, I reviewed Steph Cha's engaging thriller about the long reach of racial tensions in LA, Your House Will Pay, for USA Today

Patricia Lockwood's funny and astute take on John Updike will likely stand as the definitive essay on his work for some time, savaging him for his sexism and general goofiness while not denying his virtues as a stylist. Zadie Smith returns to a theme that consumed much of Feel Free: the potential of fiction, at its best, to surmount tribalist thinking about humanity. Ahmet Altan wrote a potent essay about the writer's life under Turkey's oppressive regime, and how defeatism can transform into defiance. Jonathan Lethem considers Edward Snowden. Miles Klee considers the saga of Balloon Boy, the ur-text of Twitter-stoked online idiocy. Matt Burriesci drills into the leadership mess at AWP.

Thanks for reading; I’ll try to keep the baseball content to a minimum going forward, but no promises. I'm on Twitter. Email me: mathitak@gmail.com.

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