Good news, feminists! Not all hope is lost! Pick up a copy of this slim book and carry it with you to be reminded that yes, really, yes, things might get better one day!
Just look! A book by a woman whose cover shows nothing but a bold white typeface on a blue background – no soft-focus photograph of laundry on a clothesline in a field of wildflowers, no black high heels, no pink font, no cursive, none of that shit. Not even a picture of Solnit with her long, lovely hair and some sexy, smoldering look in her eye. We’ve come so far!
At least, that is the impression I got after finishing Men Explain Things to Me.
But, wait, don’t get me wrong. Solnit’s essays are depressing as hell.
image by Bastien Grivet
The new Penguin edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales doesn’t come right out and say it, so I’ll say it: Washington Irving is America’s Tolkien.
If you Google the phrase “America’s Tolkien” you’ll find a bunch of references to George R.R. Martin. Those references are wrong. Writing a hugely successful epic that involves swords and legends and fantastical beasts while you happen to be an American citizen does not make you America’s Tolkien. What makes you America’s Tolkien is… you’ll see.
Even though he is best remembered for only two short stories—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—Washington Irving almost singlehandedly put the “American” in American literature. By making a careful study of his own neighbors—common people of mostly Dutch descent, living in farming hamlets along the Hudson River or down in the new borough of Manhattan—Irving turned the denizens of our new nation into literary types, familiar people with distinctly American characteristics. He was fascinated by the Revolutionary War, which was still a recent memory, and by the widening rift—an ocean, you might say—between the cultures of England and America. With his stories, essays, and literary “sketches,” Irving reached into a richly imagined, hyper-local American past, and created the first stirrings of our national mythology.
More than a century later, Tolkien did the same for Britain, weaving Norse and Germanic myths into a distinctly British tapestry. Both Irving and Tolkien had a particular vision of their nation’s character, and they used old-seeming stories to grandfather them in. Embedding these visions in an imagined past allowed the stories to become part of the nation’s shared memory. In her introduction to the new edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Elizabeth L. Bradley makes a convincing case that without Washington Irving, we would not have Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Twain, or Thurber. We would not have the Hudson River School of painters or the New York Knicks. We would not understand Harry Potter, Planet of the Apes, or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in quite the same way.
Dave Van Ronk did not mean to write an autobiography. According to Elijah Wald—writer of the book’s epilogue, friend of the author, and guitar student during the slow denouement of Van Ronk’s musical career—Van Ronk’s book was supposed to chronicle the folk music boom in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. The Mayor of MacDougal Street was meant as a history lesson for those interested in music, or New York City, or both. Van Ronk thought he could describe the scene’s political turmoil, auditory deconstruction, and social revolution without paying too much attention to his own influence. But his story was the one that needed to be told; his story encapsulates the time when the Village bred musicians and folk music defined a generation.
Van Ronk begins the story of the “Great Folk Scare”—a term coined by his friend Utah Phillips—with his own story of how he first discovered music. He recalls growing up in Queens in the 1950s and his deep appreciation for jazz. He distills his childhood into a string of “swells” and “trading licks” that make “boring… perfectly miserable” Queens tolerable, if not quite picturesque. He remembers taking guitar lessons from “Old Man” Jack, a local jazz aficionado, well known in the music community, who taught Van Ronk techniques he would adopt as his own. Jack also instilled in Van Ronk the ever-more-important lesson of listening.
The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is here. Been looking forward to this one for a long time.
Inherent Vice was “the Pynchon book I was the least interested in reading, and the one I flat out enjoyed the most.” It also strikes me as the most film-adaptable of his novels, especially at the hands of Anderson, who also did There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and one of my personal favorites, Punch Drunk Love.
You can read more about his love of Pynchon and work on Inherent Vice in a recent New York Times story.
A lot of nonfiction books feel inevitable. Someone was bound to write them. If Walter Isaacson hadn’t written the definitive biography of Steve Jobs, someone else would have. But there are some nonfiction books whose very concept would be unthinkable without the peculiar interests and intelligence of their author. Books that are as strikingly unique as the person who writes them. Books like On Immunity by Eula Biss.
The unlikely premise of On Immunity is that vaccination—yes, like the shots you received when you were a kid—is the key to understanding all kinds of cultural and ethical issues, like public health, citizenship, motherhood, immigration, even the Revolutionary War and Count Dracula.
Biss starts small, with her own pregnancy, a germ of a child growing inside her. She writes powerfully about the physical trauma of childbirth and the madness of trying to protect a child from all sorts of dangers, seen and unseen.
Immediately after my son’s birth, in an otherwise complicated delivery, my uterus inverted, bursting capillaries and spilling blood… I woke up disoriented, shivering violently under a pile of heated blankets… I was too weak to move much, but when I tried I discovered that my body was lashed with tubes and wires—I had an IV in each arm, a catheter down my leg, monitors on my chest, and an oxygen mask on my face.
Sean Wilsey knows that “there’s no surer impediment to a good time than knowing you’ll have to write about it.” So much for the guy who’s reviewing his book.
More Curious, Wilsey’s collection of previously published essays, is enjoyable, occasionally hilarious, and always insightful. It delves into unexpected topics, turning apparent minutiae into allegorical exposés of wide-ranging attitudes and American points of view. Part of the author’s charm is his ability to research and adventure. Obstacles be damned, he tracks down the story of a short-lived marketing campaign for Red Roof Inn that utilized a low-maintenance, animated character voiced by John Goodman, remnants of which no longer exist in the cyber-sphere; he gets the authority on New York City’s rat population on the phone, only to discover his knowledge already exceeds that of the representative of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; on a tour of NASA, he hones his understanding of a piece of machinery that already handles urine, and hopefully will soon handle excrement, turning waste into water—an integral part of any attempt to visit Mars.