Garden Party

Stressed out by our posts on the sea of troubles in which American higher education is flailing? Relax. That’s one of the main things gardens have been for since there have been gardens (besides the whole growing-food aspect).

● Although binge-spending on campus amenities is problematic in a lot of infuriating and scary ways, it does mean that many American schools (at least those that end up on the dumb ranking lists barfed out by Forbes and US News and other magazines every year) have remained passable facsimiles of Arcardia. Yes, I’m being aesthetically charitable, but schools with competitive admission profiles spend major funds on landscaping for a reason: an environment distinguished by transplanted ornamental trees, machine-shorn lawns, stone fountains, ivy wired to buildings, and other postmodern-bucolic stuff is meant to evoke the repose necessary for deep thought and complex scholarship. That’s why Plato taught in an olive grove. Also, it entices prospective students with all sorts of green nooks for smoking weed in.

● Read all about the above, and more, in Robert Pogue Harrison’s magisterial Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. It’s actually more of a book than an essay. If the untamed side of things is more your style, he also wrote a book called Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. It is also good.

● Maybe grab a couple other garden tomes? None of us read enough anyway. These would be the Oxford Companion to the Garden (wonderful even though the British origin makes you put up with lots of colour and vigour and missing commas) and Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Contra the ad pitch on Pollan’s website, it is not “a modern Walden,” because it doesn’t have any boring stretches where you want to die or go read Emerson instead. Built upon an autobiographical foundation (there is great stuff about lawn care on suburban Long Island after World War II), the text is ultimately a hybrid of cultural history, botanical inquiry (the stuff about weeds is rhapsodic and sensible at the same time), gardening advice, and ethical meditation. Pollan’s central claim is that gardening, unlike (say) American wilderness worship or a vague feeling for the poor Amazon, reminds us, over and over, that human experience takes place within a life-world that we must simultaneously exploit, care for, and love deeply.

● Staying with the literary angle, refresh yourself with Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.” Over the years critics have gone at it with all kinds of ideological crowbars, but you shouldn’t forget Philip Larkin’s remark that the poem might be best understood as “a good description of the mind of someone half-asleep under the summer trees in a garden” (“The Changing Face of Andrew Marvell,” collected in his Required Writing).

● Rich people usually have nice land around their homes. Often that land bears complicated gardens. And if rich people go broke and then go crazy, they sometimes do it in high style, as Grey Gardens reminds us. I’ve seen this documentary three or four times, and it never ceases to be demonically compelling. Don’t call it a “cult classic.” It’s just a classic. Man, WASPs have some weird genes.

● Merely eccentric wealthy people tend to be a lot more functional, and one of them, Madame Ganna Walska, left behind the coolest, most variegated, enchanting garden I have ever been to, Lotusland in Montecito, California. If you are ever in the Santa Barbara area and have a few hours, go. It is absolutely worth the steep admission fee ($35). They sometimes do free-tour days, but those are tough to get.

● I have a little kitchen garden, and bugs and weeds get in it all the time, which MAKES ME SO ANGRY. These people can help: the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program. Caution: this site’s mesmerizing level of visual and written detail, along with its intense dedication to helping you do the practical stuff that keeps a garden functional, will take up lots of your free time, if you garden.

● Aesthetics aside, we also need more working gardens in urban neighborhoods that lack decent grocery stores. Gardens are nice to walk through and look at, but they can also help bring down America’s catastrophic rates of obesity and diabetes, scourges that are concentrated in the places where poor people live. From the LA Times, here is a touching story about how kids in a scruffy part of Los Angeles are maintaining local garden clubs.

● Here is a snapshot of Wallace Stevens watering his rose garden in  West Hartford, Connecticut sometime in the 1930s. Note that he is wearing a suit. The image is housed in the archives of The Huntington Library in Pasadena, which also happens to maintain some astonishing gardens; the photographer is unknown.

Stevens watering roses - mid 1930s - Huntington archive

● And here is that scene from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland that has inspired thousands of budding artists and similar weirdos, and subtly terrified millions of children more.

● We’ll leave you with some more music. Have a listen to the Stone Temple Pilots’ corny but energizing “Wicked Garden” (the garden seems to be a metaphor for something). Kind of fun to mute the Alice clip above and play this:

● . . . or maybe you should just stick with Beethoven’s 6th, the “Pastoral” symphony:



Always Been a Soft Touch

I am shallow when it comes to books, and buying most of mine used hasn’t compromised my pickiness; it has deepened it. The aesthetics of a cover, of a spine, of a novel’s typeface, are important to me. An ugly cover; a brutalized spine or floppy, grubby corners; a big USED PRICE sticker on the back, below the final blurb; too much marginal notation from a previous owner; a clunky font; whatever, and I’m out. Indeed, the terrible covers favored by Vintage Contemporaries in the 1980s (see examples here and here) have led me into a half-decade-long project of replacing my copies. (Poorish young people end up with these dated designs when people who used to be young and poorish upgrade.)

Regardless of how well-kept or aesthetically pleasing a book is, I don’t care for hardcovers. Besides costing too much, they take up more space in your bag; long experience as a student using public transit taught me to hate them. Moreover, they don’t turn up nearly as much in used-book stores. And there is also something earthier and more democratically authentic about paperbacks. I like their portability both on a personal level and a philosophical one. They pass through a lot of hands, they make many people happy, or at least divert them, until they end up on some dork collector’s bookshelf.

Pretty archaic, huh? Print media. Wow. What with all the Internet and the technology, it must be dying out, that format.

Granted, most of the Digital Natives in my college writing classes prefer printed texts to digital ones (over and over, despite their general addiction to screens, for class they want something they can highlight and underline with a pen), and, granted, nobody ever seems to adduce hard statistics to prove that digital formats are anywhere close to universally favored by the buying public, but nonetheless one of the contemporary West’s favorite narratives is that printed books can’t compete with e-books, which are just too slick and easy to get. Print is dying, people don’t read print anymore, print is too expensive, print is old-fashioned, and despite whatever your teacher with his/her graduate degree in the humanities might tell you, print is, you know, dying. Haven’t you seen any TED talks or read a Thomas Friedman column? Print is dead, y’all. Long live digital things.

Leaving aside that it is historically stupid to believe that some new Technology is going to ecstatically solve every tedious efficiency the world presents us with, and leaving aside the fact that this is true even though humans, as a tool-making species, are always coming up with new technologies (e.g., the wheel and antibiotics), there is another gigantic, flashing reason to be skeptical about the extinction narrative: the enormous companies that produce e-books profit enormously from convincing people that only e-books are worth buying nowadays.

Always be on the lookout for the percentage. In other words, ask who stands to make money off of some “inevitable” trend. It usually turns out that some large player (or more often, a small set of players) has an interest in playing up the supposed inevitability:

Gerry Donaghy, book buyer at the largest indie bookseller in the US, Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, says that the major publishers have a compelling reason to perpetuate a paperbacks-are-dying narrative, for one simple reason: because paperbacks are the most common books to be bought secondhand. “Publishers have a vested interest in keeping the e-book dominant—it allows them to control the ecosystem, because there are no used e-book sales,” Donaghy says. A paperback copy of, say, Eat Pray Love, can be sold and resold ad infinitum, thanks to Amazon and your local used book store. But for multiple people to read that same book on a Kindle or Nook, each of them has to buy it for $10.

Read the rest of the article here. Or read a summary here: “Paperbacks will survive in many prominent genres and only die out if enough consumers buy into the corporate publishing industry’s greedy bullshit.”

Used paperbacks are a desperately needed form of cultural continuity (all those texts passing through all those hands); in a purely material respect they are more varied and interesting than the latest e-book download; they don’t need batteries, and they aren’t scared of dust or the occasional blip of moisture; they are usually cheap. That final factor always helps me make up my mind.

If you love post-middle-class America, buy paperbacks, even if you buy them from . . . Amazon. But, figuratively speaking, fuck your Kindle.

On Jim Daniels and Writing

Jim Daniels’s poetry was recommended to me about a decade ago, but I’ve only just now gotten around to reading it. This is one of the nasty side effects of getting an advanced degree in literature; you become not only one kind of writer, but one kind of reader. Or, rather, you become a reader reading to write academic criticism, not to produce (or really even enjoy) art. You’re told you must present at conferences and roundtables (some of the least useful exercises known to man) simply because you must. You’re also encouraged to publish tortured and genuflective articles no one will read in outlets no one has heard of. And be very, very careful about who you tell that you’d rather write poetry than play video games. Trust me.

But now I’m done with all of that, and I’m once again, to borrow a phrase from a future colleague, Mike Bunn, “reading like a writer.” Jim Daniels’s Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2003) is the kind of book of poetry that 21-year-old me would have gone nuts over, and I can see why the person who recommended it then did so. Like a lot of creative writing students at a certain extremely crunchy Northern California university, I was obsessed with the working class narratives of Raymond Carver, Philip Levine, and Richard Hugo. The poems I was turning out under their influence weren’t metrical, didn’t rhyme, and told vague stories about love lost (I was in a happy relationship), hard work (I had worked shitty jobs, but not in factories), and bars (these I knew). The stuff I read was awesome, the stuff I wrote wasn’t. Jim Daniels’s work is in the tradition of the poets I admired then and continue to admire today, but reading his poetry ten years later makes me realize that the things that attract us to good writing at various stages in our lives (particularly in youth) aren’t necessarily what actually makes the writing good.

If you would have asked me then why Carver, Levine, and Hugo appealed to me, I probably would have said something about narrative and mood. And indeed, these are important elements of all poems I tend to enjoy. Poetry that lacks any sort of narrative arc bores the shit out of me, but then again I think that William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a dripping with narrative (the word “red” is the denouement). So, like a lot of things then, what constitutes a narrative is subjective. What reading Jim Daniels now reveals is that I was and am drawn to poetry that uses narrative in a distinct way: to work through but never resolve the frustration that comes from knowing that our interpretations of and reactions to joy and sorrow are both unique to the point of being painfully inexpressible (something Joan Didion calls “the burden of ‘home’”) and also really, really generic.

In one of the many portraits in Show and Tell, Daniels writes of “Crazy Eddy,” a “drunk/garbage man with a bad temper,”:

We didn’t know then
he picked up trash for a living
and drank twelve beers a night.
Maybe all he wanted was a green lawn
and a peaceful drunk.

The simplicity of both the phrasing and the sentiment here makes the critique all the more potent: we don’t know much about what others desire, what motivates them, and the assumptions we make usually lead us further from understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to express this idea in verse only to miss it, usually by a lot. Or take these couplets from “Shedding the Vestments”:

I was inside her for the first time
when her parents pulled up the driveway.

Her father’s brain was the size of a small stone
dug up by an idiot pig. He greeted me cordially.

This is one way to react to this event, and one particularly common to young men: smugness. However, there’s another reaction that’s equally plausible: pants-shitting panic. By giving us one possibility in such a dense couplet, the poem almost forces us to imagine its inverse as well, thus making the quality of the speaker’s youthful hubris even more stunning. As you might be able to imagine, this doesn’t bode well for the speaker, and when it all falls apart and the girl gets impregnated by someone else, the final line of the poem (“go to hell”) leaves us understanding how smugness and terror can both lead us to loneliness.

There are other great poems in Daniels’s collection, including “Time, Temperature,” which is about how the racial animus of a community can infect even people who consciously try to place themselves above it. Fittingly, this poem is dedicated to James Baldwin, and it is easily the most ambitious and cinematic in the collection. As with any book of poetry though, there are some duds in here. I am not a huge fan of the “[Insert Color] Jesus” poems, or the meandering “Niagra Falls,” as these start to veer into the realm of bad impressionistic art—all impressions, no firm connections or boundaries to give them even a loose shape. But duds aside, Show and Tell is well worth your time. Personally, I am happy to have more of that to devote to reading like a writer again.

Lazy Sunday Links

We hope your Sunday is sunny, because the June Gloom has coastal California socked in.

  • From ESPN The Magazine, a superb piece about race, soccer, and cultural change in Italy (the author, Wright Thompson, also narrates the 30-for-30 documentary “Ghosts of Ole Miss“).
  • More evidence that privatized online ed will be an expensive disaster (add the data to everything every decent teacher has told you when the subject comes up).
  • Evgeny Morozov has written a cool polemic, To Save Everything, Click Here; read some condensed versions of its claims here and here and here.
  • George Packer is one of America’s best nonfiction writers, and he just published The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Spend your weekend reading up on the post-middle-class USA. Got my copy this week.
  • . . . and if you want to see an example of ad hominem burbling from a person who gets paid to review books but apparently hasn’t learned anything about writing from them, check out the New York Observer‘s wail. You probably won’t finish it, because in addition to being bad (bad because it is stupid, not because it rejects Packer’s theses), it is long.
  • Karl has a book coming out soon.
  • I love Max Brooks’s World War Z, and if the new film is at least above mediocre, I will be a happy customer.

In Praise of Novellas (Especially Ones by Denis Johnson)

In the introduction to his story collection Skeleton Crew (1985), Stephen King remarks that “Reading a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair” (a few lines later he amends it to “an affair or a marriage”), while “a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.”

A novella would seem to land somewhere in between, the equivalent of that dude you spent the weekend with at that cool music festival out in the desert, or of a summer-camp romance, or–if the book isn’t good–of an ill-advised fling with a close friend. I especially like it when novelists who are known for writing huge books flip the script on us and bring out something much trimmer. For example, there’s Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day; Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49; and Dickens’s Hard Times (short for him, anyway). On the nonfiction side, there is William Styron’s Darkness Visible.

Denis Johnson has written more than one solid short novel–The Name of the World (2000) and Nobody Move (2009) are both fantastic–but the bulk of his popular rep is based on 2007’s Tree of Smoke, the Vietnam War behemoth that won a National Book Award. Literate people know it even if they haven’t read it. There’s also his hugely underrated NorCal narco-Gothic thriller, Already Dead (1998), which a lot of lazy critics griped was overwritten and too slow. (It isn’t either.)

In 2002 he published Train Dreams in The Paris Review, but the narrative wasn’t released as an independent book until a couple of years ago; a slim little thing that will fit in your coat pocket, it weighs in at 116 pages. You can read it during a cross-country flight. That’s what I did. No big deal, brah. Guess I’m just a reader.


Set in the American West (mainly Washington, Idaho, and Montana) during the first half of the twentieth century, the book’s central character is Robert Grainier, a laborer. Nothing much happens to him: he doesn’t invent anything or kill somebody or write a famous book. Grainier works a lot of rough jobs, gets married, gets widowed, works more jobs, and makes it into his eighties, dying alone in his cabin. He never even gets drunk or shoots a gun (strange, given where and when he lives), though he does see Elvis’s touring train once.

But Johnson’s gorgeous narration (a sustained brew of narrative-driven realism, Gothic tall-tale, and dilatory, lush, at times surreal prose poetry) underscores the astonishing density of an ordinary life, the kind that most of us have, whatever era we happen to inhabit. Here is Robert as a logger in northwest Washington around 1920:

He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him. . . . Cut off from anything else that might trouble them, the gang, numbering sometimes more than forty and never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce into pieces of a barely manageable size, accomplishing labors, Grainier sometimes thought, tantamount to the pyramids, changing the face of the mountainsides, talking little, shouting their communications, living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints, the odor of pitch so thick it abraded their throats and stung their eyes, and even overlaid the stink of beasts and manure. At day’s end the gang slept nearly where they fell.

Just look at that rhythm. After the switchbacks of a multi-clause, carefully unspooled, image-heavy sentence comes a short one rendered even crisper by Johnson’s decision not to use a comma after the introductory phrase “At day’s end.”

This being a story with a third-person narrator, the usual question arises of where the main character’s cognition stops and the author’s discourse begins, but regardless of where you think the border zone is, Robert is an observant, sensitive man, alive to the shocks of his own life.

Johnson’s mystery narrator also relishes subsidiary characters. This is how the dynamite handler in the logging camp dies:

It looked certain that Arn Peeples would exit this world in a puff of smoke with a monstrous noise, but he went out quite differently, hit across the back of his head by a dead branch falling off a tall larch–the kind of snag called a ‘widowmaker’ with just this kind of misfortune in mind. The blow knocked him silly, but he soon came around and seemed fine, complaining only that his spine felt ‘”knotty amongst the knuckles” and “I want to walk suchways–crooked.” He had a number of dizzy spells and grew dreamy and forgetful over the course of the next few days, lay up all day Sunday racked with chills and fever, and on Monday morning was found in his bed deceased, with the covers up under his chin and “such a sight of comfort,” as the captain said, “that you’d just as soon not disturb him–just lower him down into a great long wide grave, bed and all.”

The prose is always like that, swinging between the straightforward (“deceased”) and the disorienting (“knotty amongst the knuckles”!). In short, Train Dreams is incredible. You can read it over a weekend. And it costs about $5 on Amazon. You can thank TGR later.

Yes, Read Gogol

From the Wall Street Journal, of all damn places. Murdoch owns them, but at least they still print serious book reviews. While I suspect Russians might take some issue with this—not the “vast and barbarous country” part (Russians are rightly proud of the fact) but rather the critic’s assertion that Dostoevsky, Gogol, and company “mysteriously” emerged from that country—the essay is a good piece a’ read. It’s the length of a cup of coffee, too. There is no Kafka without Gogol. Good Saturday, everyone.

Epistolary Blues

Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is one of the best American novels of the twentieth century, and if you haven’t read it, you should do so as soon as you can. It’s a book about disappointment: the disappointment of family life, the disappointment of consumerism, the disappointment of academia. But more than this, it is about the disappointment that comes from having to continue on living after the death of someone who made you realize that life could be other than midddling. The Professor’s House came out the same year as a book with a similar theme, The Great Gatsby, and I have a theory that one of Cather’s earlier works, 1919’s My Antonia, was where Fitzgerald got his idea to tell Gatsby’s story from the perspective of someone who was both skeptical of and probably hot to bone the novel’s titular subject.

Anyway, as a Cather lover, I am excited for the long-awaited release of some of her letters. The reason why her letters haven’t been made public until now is a fairly predictable: she didn’t want them to be, and so she placed some steely gatekeepers in charge of her estate. Jennifer Howard documents all of this very well in a recent article in The Chronicle, but I was particularly struck by the article’s opening:

In November 1938, buffeted by the death of her dear friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg, Willa Cather poured her heart out to her brother Roscoe in a letter. She sent it from the Shattuck Inn in New Hampshire, a spot Isabelle had first taken her years earlier.

“You cannot imagine what her death means to me,” Cather wrote. “No other living person cared as much about my work, through 38 years, as she did. As for me, I have cared too much, about people and about places—cared too hard. It made me, as a writer. But it will break me in the end. I feel as if I couldn’t go another step.”

Let’s table the fact that Roscoe Cather is an incredible name (ideal for someone born in the nineteenth century). The second paragraph sounds like something Godfrey St. Peter, the professor of The Professor’s House, would have said after the death of Tom Outland, the rough but brilliant youth who wandered into his life only to die in World War I. It also sounds like what Nick Carraway is trying to avoid feeling when he puts on his false hard-boiled act at various points throughout The Great Gatsby. Cather and Fitzgerald both understood that caring too much is the source of great art. Any artist who claims not to give a shit about people and places is either fronting to avoid crying in public, or not a real artist. Caring means inviting disappointment to bed down with you from time to time. The fact that Cather tried to hide her letters from the public for so long couldn’t keep those of us who love her work from seeing how well she understood this often uncomfortable twinning.

Saturday Links

Here’s a weekend reading/viewing list for your edification and pleasure: