Las Vegas Book Festival appearance/conversation with Thomas Frank

I enjoyed being on this Zoom panel with the writers Vi Khi Nao, José Orduña, and Alyse Burnside, moderated by T.R. Witcher, on the question of “Vegas as heartland.” I knew it was going to be a good panel because one of my co-panelists typed the words “Go GEO!” into the chat as soon as they heard I taught at Michigan.

On Tuesday, I will be asking questions of Thomas Frank during his virtual reading at Literati Bookstore. As it happens, I greatly admire this writer and have done so for a long time. He is probably best known for cofounding The Baffler. I read The People, No!, his new book on the history of populism and, in particular, the polemic against it, last spring and was very taken by it.

It seems that I have a predilection for Midwestern writers who fall in love with intellectual traditions the very names of which have become terms of abuse. With Marilynne Robinson it’s “puritans” and “Calvinists.” With Frank, it’s “populism.” Did you know that the economic program of the 1890s Populists was the big inspiration for the anti-poverty plank of the Civil Rights Movement? Did you know that Populist politicians were making the connection between anti-blackness in the U.S. and our subjugation of brown people abroad from pretty much the birth of our empire? I didn’t. All I ever learned about the Populists is that they were a bunch of embarrassing cranks who didn’t understand sound fiscal policy. The book really is fascinating, one of my favorites of the year. It will make you grind your teeth at the term “right-wing populism,” a thing that doesn’t exist. (Just call it “demagoguery”!)

A lot of updates at once

I have done a poor job maintaining this web site. I pledge to do better in future.

My wife Ashley’s book on prison theatre is out. You can read an excerpt here.

Since the last update to this site, I have written three more installments of my bimonthly Book Tour column for Plough Quarterly, considering new books and reissues by L.M. Sacasas, Caleb Crain, Jane McAlevey, Vivian Gornick, Adrienne Kennedy, Elisa Gabbert, Jill Lepore, Bernadette Mayer, Rick Perlstein, Louise Erdrich, and Erica Hunt, on such subjects as media ecology, disaster, companies that spy on us, Reagan, Native American dispossession, and whether time is one of God’s creatures or not. The next one talks about Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, John M. Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Marie NDiaye’s That Time of Year, and Jacques Ellul’s commentary on the book of Revelation. I’m also planning a roundup-of-the-year thing that will be a real stemwinder. Next year there are new books on the horizon by Helen Oyeyemi and Gayl Jones and a Penguin Classics version of the Chinese classic The Journey to the West that I’ve got my eye on. Who knows.

For the Christian Century I have also reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack and Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s study of American evangelicalism and masculinity, Jesus and John Wayne.

I wrote about ungrading for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, as part of a larger symposium on higher education during a pandemic.

Have something on Mark Fisher coming soon from Commonweal.

In the spring, I got to be the token unfamous person in a Plough/Breaking Ground panel that also featured Stanley Hauerwas and Edwidge Danticat, moderated by Anne Snyder. They were brilliant and insightful, but the show is stolen by Hauerwas’s cat. (Sadly, I have not gotten better at sewing masks.)

I also talked to Ryan Cooper and Alexi the Greek for an episode of Left Anchor, their excellent podcast on the Left and philosophy. I did a long interview with Aarik Danielsen in Rain Taxi, but they’re so cool you have to buy the print magazine. I appeared on the Cook Memorial Public Library podcast. I tried to say somewhat different things in each interview, but I haven’t listened to find out how I did, because I dislike how my voice sounds. They all asked great questions. Good people.

My book will probably not become the cash cow that, in my lesser moments, I allowed myself to dream it might, but it has gotten reviewed thoughtfully, critically, and appreciatively by people whose minds I respect. Also, I got my first author cartoon drawing out of it, a drawing in which I look a bit plump, perhaps, but distinguished. The artist could have owned me much harder than they did. Look at that lustrous head of hair!

I started a Patreon where people pay me to read/watch through some massive canon and I write about it in installments every Friday (or most Fridays). For now, I’m working through Henry and William James. For future series, I am considering postpunk, the French New Wave filmmakers, Superman, heaven knows what else.

Two “appearances”

I’m gonna be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time from 5:30-6pm on Wednesday if anyone is interested. It will be live, so this could be an opportunity to watch someone embarrass themselves in real time. (I will have to practice not cussing.) I think this link takes you to a feed where the thing can be listened to. https://www.wpr.org/listen-live?network=ideas

Then immediately after that, my friend Raechel, whose book you can buy here, and I will talk to each other via Zoom while anyone who wants to listens. That event is hosted by Literati, a store that I really miss walking through and hope to soon walk through again.

These spectral presences will constitute my book tour for Midwest Futures for the moment, though one hopes for more.

Updates

I’ve been doing a poor job of keeping this site updated. Since the last thing I posted on here, I have published this piece about my weird obsession with Richard Nixon, and the first installment of what I hope will be a continuing bimonthly new books column at Plough, on science fiction. (In this environment, who knows what will and won’t “continue,” but I’m working on the next two installments just in case!) My editor for the Plough piece, Caitrin Keiper, is absolutely brilliant and is available for freelance hire. Any person or organization would do well to hire her.

My book, Midwest Futures, an expansion and reimagining of this essay about the Midwest, is already shipping, and can be bought here. (They won’t be able to ship physical copies till April 6 because of Ohio’s shelter-in-place order, but that’s not that long to wait). You can also buy the ebookMidwest Futures, as of this moment–I won’t look again because it can only get worse–has a 4.67-star rating at Goodreads. I don’t know a single one of the reviewers, so that makes it extra sweet. An excerpt from Midwest Futures has appeared at Vox. I had not worked with Vox before and I want to shout-out both Karen Turner, the editor, who was thoughtful, imaginative, and patient, and also whoever did the illustration that accompanies the article. It’s quite attractive.

Finally, I interviewed the poet Mark Nowak about his new history of community creative writing workshops, Social Poetics.

I hope anyone reading this is as well and safe as possible.

New essay for HEDGEHOG about bad movies

To a child, the adult world is oppressive in part because of its apparent competence, its air of knowing what ought to be done and when and what to call everything. The unending, dogged, elaborate, even painstaking failure of Plan 9—the way it seems to go out of its way to fail—was tonic to the imagination, a kind of carnivalesque reversal. I needed to see adult inadvertence, and name it as such; I needed to observe the little hole it made in the world. 

I wrote about loving terrible movies for Hedgehog Review.

New and recent pieces

I wrote about teaching writing (and about John Warner’s excellent book Why They Can’t Write) for Plough, about Linn Marie Tonstad’s Queer Theology for the Century, and about the TV show Black Mirror and the podcast The Dropout for the Courier.

Upcoming topics: disenchantment (is it a thing??); Richard Nixon (what was his deal??); Mark Fisher (why was he so great??); the similarities between the Epstein and Manson cases (were they CIA plants??) (just kidding) (not really)

Preorder page for MIDWEST FUTURES, my first book

(To the tune of “Ring My Bell”) You can buy my boo-ooo-ook!/Buy my book!

You can do it here, and you can also gaze at the cover design, which is so good want to go buy the thing. Comes out in March 2020 unless the revisions I’m about to turn in need more revising.

It’s an expansion of the Midwest essay, but I’m concentrating more on the ways in which the Midwest has been a focus of technological change and ideas about the future, and how these interact with the idea of its “plainness” and “averageness” and “normality,” and how all of it comes into play again when we talk about the future under climate change.

The two people who have read it (in its first draft) did so in one sitting without meaning to, so I take that as a good sign.

New piece on Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible

Or, as I put it on Twitter, “I reviewed the FREAKIN’ BIBLE, no big deal.” It’s at Plough.

Catching up

A couple small pieces I forgot to post here: Me on Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States, a book that tied with lazenby’s Infinity to Dine as my favorite of 2018. And my tribute to Mary Midgley, the late English moral philosopher, at Hedgehog.

My book Midwest at Midnight (current title, anyway) is with the publisher now. (Sentences of this form remind me of the thing a parent says to a child about a dead pet. “Mittens is with God now, honey.”) We’ll see what amount of edits I get back, but I believe our target is still publication in 2020. Visitors to this web site will, Heaven knows, hear a great deal more about that subject.

New review of Deanna Thompson’s GLIMPSING RESURRECTION

So go ahead and read the depressing-looking cancer theology book. It’s actually life-giving, and you need it. Our planetary situation, after all, is more or less the same as Thompson’s bodily one. Our nomos is disrupted down to the level of plankton and sperm cells, and our disease is, in some sense, a part of us. The people in charge seem to want the world to be four degrees hotter by the end of the century, and reactionary movements in all the richest countries seem determined to make sure the refugees we’re creating will have nowhere to go but into the sea. We don’t know how long we’ve got, and none of our stories seem to be working. If we survive, it will be in a version of ourselves unrecognizable to ourselves. We’re all in exile from an ordered world. With the help of thinkers like Thompson, we can relearn how to sing our songs in a hot, barren land.

Wrote about a good theology book for the Christian Century, here.