Beheadings: The Original American Ghost Story

image by Bastien Grivet

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.

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Did You Hear? Cold Blooded

New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!

I suppose it’s impossible to talk about this song without referring to R.E.M., but it’s a solid rock song with great layering of parts. I love songs that delay the cadence until after the downbeat, and this song builds up a great expectation for a crashing climax only to stretch it out for another two beats on you. Quit messing with my head, man!

- Brook Reeder

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HITTING SHELVES #12: Man V. Nature by Diane Cook

Man v. Nature

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook comes out today!

It’s one of the most anticipated books of the season: a debut collection of impossible, all-too-believable stories about baby snatchers, a forest of lost boys, and a flood at the end of the world. In “The Mast Year,” a woman experiences the same kind of boom harvest that certain trees do, when they grow fat with more fruit and nuts than usual–but in her case, it takes the form of a promotion, great sex, and hordes of people camped out on her front lawn like woodland creatures, desperate to gorge on her incredible luck. You can read “Marrying Up” for free at Guernica, and “Girl on Girl” here at Granta. Either one will make Diane Cook one of your new favorite writers.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of Man V. Nature?

Diane Cook: I think I’ll go for a hike in the morning because I like doing that. My husband and I just moved to the Bay Area. We had lived in Brooklyn for ten years. I always wanted to live in a place where I could get outside whenever I wanted, walk in the woods. Brooklyn was not that place. Here, I have wonderful parks and hiking 15 minutes away and I don’t even have to get on a highway. But I think I’ll go the extra distance to somewhere really special. Somewhere just far enough away that it feels like a special occasion. Probably Point Reyes. I’ll do my usual hikey things–look at stuff, get short of breath, think about things. Then, back at home, if I’ve got my head on straight I’ll try to write this essay I said I’d write. If I don’t, I’ll walk a circuit between my kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, pick up something with the idea that I’m cleaning, then put it back down, accomplishing nothing. Then I’ll head to The Booksmith in San Francisco for my reading and book party. I’ll be nervous because I’ve never been the reason for an event before and I’ll worry that no one will come. But people will be there and it’ll be fun. Then, hopefully, old friends and new friends will have a drink with me. Then my husband and I will take an Uber or cab back because BART will have stopped running, and we’ll sleep. Continue reading

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The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk

Mayor-of-MacDougal-Street-A-Memoir

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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.

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Hitting Shelves #11: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

The Wallcreeper

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink comes out today!

A manic, heartfelt, intellectual novel about an American couple living in Europe, The Wallcreeper is one of the best books of the year. Tiff and Stephen cheat on each other constantly, they’re horrible to each other, and they don’t seem to believe in their own marriage. But they both love birds—like the wallcreeper that they adopt together, after they hit it with a car, which causes Tiff to miscarry.

It’s hard to think of two fictional characters who are more believably fucked up, or more exquisitely codependent, or more maddening and joyful to know.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of The Wallcreeper?

Nell Zink: I’m celebrating in a way so custom-tailored to the book, it could almost be penance: On October 1, I’ll be at the Second Adriatic Flyway Conference in Durrës, Albania, researching an article on waterbird hunting for the German magazine natur. Continue reading

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Now Playing: Inherent Vice Trailer

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 BloodMagnoliaBoogie 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.

-Michael Moats

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Amazing Book Covers at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s “Big Book Sale”

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On Immunity by Eula Biss

On Immunity

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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.

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