Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fifty States of Books

Here's a splendid way to avoid real work: A literary map of the United States. That is, selecting a book for each state. Like a state bird. (Vermont's is the hermit thrush.) Brooklyn Magazine made such a list, and although theirs was good, I decided to make my own. For no good reason at all. This is a terrible waste of time.

Not the best book from each state, but simply the book by which I best know that state. Brooklyn favored novels; mine's equally weighted toward literary journalism.

1. Alabama: No contest: Wallace, by Marshall Frady. Oh, what am I saying? It's a tie, of course: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans.

2. Alaska: I tepidly agree with Brooklyn: Into the Wilderness, by Jon Krakauer.

3. Arizona: Brooklyn's choice, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, is a good one, but that's just a story. I'm going with the real deal, Blood Orchid, by Tucson's late genius, Charles Bowden. Runner-up: Slow Lightning, by Eduardo C. Corral.

4. Arkansas: Sing Out Warning! Sing Out Love!: The Collected Writings of Lee Hays -- the oversized gay pornographer who wrote "If I Had a Hammer" and made "Goodnight, Irene" an American standard.

5. California: Brooklyn's choice is inspired: Paul Beatty's overlooked White Boy Shuffle, one of the funniest books I've ever read. So I'm seconding it. Runner up, obviously, is Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

6. Colorado: The author of the Brooklyn list is a writer named Kristen M. Iversen. So I'm choosing Kristen Iversen's investigative memoir of growing up near the nuclear waste of Rocky Flats, Full Body Burden. Tie with Norman MacLean's Young Men and Fire.

7. Connecticut: Cold New World, by William Finnegan, a quarter of which is a harrowing account of growing up in the New Haven slums overshadowed by Yale.

8. Delaware: I have nothing.

9. Florida: So many possibilities! But I'm going with Zora Neale Hurston's great study of Eatonville, Florida storytelling, Mules and Men. Runner-up: Paul Reyes, Exiles in Eden.

10. Georgia: Brooklyn's choice, Jean Toomer's Cane, is pretty great, but I'm going with Melissa Faye Green's Praying for Sheetrock.

11. Hawaii: This book my friend JoAnn Wypijewski has long been saying she was going to write.

12. Idaho: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, despite the fact she more or less libeled me in her much inferior When I Was a Child I Read Books. That's how much I love her.

13. Illinois: 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, by Ben Hecht, recently rereleased in a beautiful edition by U Chicago Press.

14. Indiana: The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel. Runner-up: The Used World, by Haven Kimmel. Second runner-up: A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel.

15. Iowa: Yes, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

16. Kansas: NOT In Cold Blood, a terribly overrated and dull book. The Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum. Runner-up: PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon.

17. Kentucky: Watches of the Night, by Harry M. Caudill, a sequel of sorts to his better known Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

18. Louisiana: Zora Neale Hurston takes first prize for two states -- and noncontiguous ones! -- with one book, Mules and Men. Runners-up: Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink, and The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.

19. Maine: The Beans of Egypt, Maine, by Carolyn Chute.

20. Maryland: The Corner, by Ed Burns and David Simon. Yes, it's better than The Wire.

21. Massachusetts: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, by Jonathan Edwards. This might be the first American novel and the first work of literary journalism and the great-great grandfather of every Stephen King scary New England story.

22. Michigan: Rivethead: Tales from an Assembly Line, by Ben Hamper.

23. Minnesota: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.

24. Mississippi: I know it's obvious, and I know it'd be better if I could modernize my understanding of this state, in particular, but it's unavoidable to me: A Light in August, Faulkner. (It used to be Absalom, Absalom, and before that As I Lay Dying: "My mother is a fish.")

25. Missouri: Another predictable and problematic choice: Huckleberry Finn.

26. Montana: Winter in the Blood, by James Welch.

27. Nebraska: Great Plains, by Ian Frazier.

28. Nevada: Although I find it maddening at times, I'm going to say About a Mountain, by John D'Agata, paired with Lifespan of a Fact, by D'Agata and his factchecker, Tim Fingal.

29. New Hampshire: The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert. An overlooked masterpiece and the beginning of Hebert's life work, the seven volume Darby Chronicles, about the fictional town of Darby, NH. Runner-up: The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich.

30. New Jersey: When my wife finishes it, it's going to be The Fixers, by Julia Rabig. Until then, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, so much better than all that late career political sanctimony cloaked as iconoclasm.

31. New Mexico: Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.

32. New York: An impossible choice, so I'll choose a book about the impossibility of ever finishing a story: Joe Gould's Secret, by Joseph Mitchell. And then I'll add some ties: Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin; Edie, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. And upstate: A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exeley, and World's End, by T.C. Boyle.

33. North Carolina: Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy B. Tyson.

34. North Dakota: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, who has created as rich an imagined North Dakota world as Hebert has New Hampshire or Faulkner Mississippi. Runner-up: Erdrich's Tracks.

35. Ohio: Beloved, by Toni Morrison.

36. Oklahoma: Killing Floor, by Ai.

37. Oregon: Modern Viking, a biography of evangelist Abraham Vereide by Norman Grubb. Terrible book, but it's the book that got me to go to Oregon for the first time, and to research Northwest history.

38. Pennsylvania: Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman.

39. Rhode Island: I have nothing.

40. South Carolina: Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Runner-up is the anti-Allison, former state first lady Jenny Sanford's Staying True, which I read with strange fascination when working on a chapter in one of my own books involving Jenny's no-good husband Mark.

41. South Dakota: Dakota, by Kathleen Norris.

42. Texas: The Last Cowboy, by Jane Kramer. Runner-up: Charles Bowden again, Down By The River. Second runner-up: The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson. There's a theme, here.

43. Tennessee: A Death in the Family, by James Agee.

44. Utah: Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer.

45. Virginia: Jesus Saves, by Darcey Steinke.

46. Vermont: Getting Schooled, by Garret Keizer.

47. Wisconsin: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy.

48. Washington: Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie.

49. Wyoming: Close Range, by Annie Proulx.

50. West Virginia: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, by Breece D'J Pancake.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Art as Moral Failing

Friend writes: "Remind me hat the phase of writing nonfiction where you think everything is shit and bears no similarity to what you had so beautifully in your mind is not the end of the story?"

Current thinking: Kill your darlings, and then you get to kill the shit phase, too. It's not the end of the story, but over the years I've come to believe you can mostly excise it from the story. Now I just get a cold feeling toward work that's not good or just ok -- mechanical, like it's something that just has to be removed, not like it's my moral failing. I think what a lot of people experience as artistic failing is really a sense of moral failing, the idea that you have failed at beauty or its equivalent, which is to say that you have failed at good, and therefore you must be bad, and vain, to boot, for thinking you could be otherwise. But such sentiments evaporate when you give up the romantic ideal of art as good -- aka redemptive -- in the first place. And the idea that it endures. It isn't, it doesn't, and thank God. It's just something we do. Sometimes some other people get something out of it, for awhile, and then something else happens.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Work

Some recent work: "A Resourceful Woman," an Instagram essay published on Longreads. This is the work I've been most invested in these past couple of months, the kind of reporting that brought me to the genre of literary journalism in the first place, the kind of reporting that's almost impossible in most magazines.

I published six related shorter Instagram essays, installments, in a sense, in a larger essay called "#Nightshift," in a number of venues: LongreadsGQ's blog, Killing the Buddha, and Hobart. This one, also called "#Nightshift," is itself a two-parter, the second part of which makes the case for "snapshot journalism."

"Instagram's Graveyard Shift," a short essay that is, in an indirect sense, about instagram essays, in The New York Times Magazine. I also contributed a short essay on Pete Seeger for The New York Times Magazine's annual "Lives They Lived" issue.

The March issue of GQ will feature a long in-the-works report titled (by the magazine), "Are You Man Enough to Join the Men's Rights Movement?" Subscribers should receive it any day. I'll post a link when it's online. 

GQ story I published last year, "Inside the Iron Closet," just won the National Magazine Award for Reporting, which made me inordinately happy.

Because of that story, I was asked to write an introductory essay for Misha Friedman's new photo book, Lyudmila and Natasha: Russian Lives. The essay isn't online but I can't recommend the book enough.