Media Mail: Printed Literary Matters. No, I Mean it Matters!

The ostensible purpose of this cheerful weekly blog post is evangelizing on behalf of Orange County reading, writing, literary culture, according to The Bibliofella. Sometimes your humble (not) blogger's reach is pretty wide, solipsistic, a stretch but then again writing about my two favorite subjects (me and books, which is really just one subject) would perhaps be unlikely anywhere. Thus, in another exercise in examining details of the literary life, this week we consider my mail, delivered by a faithful carrier (thanks, Cherry) who gently stuffs into our P.O. Box a whole lot of literary magazines. 


Mr. Bib

gets pretty excited when his hard copy (what a stupid phrase) journals and magazines and reviews arrive. Periodicals, because they are mailed periodically.  Nice phrase. Literary, here, because they are so darned literate. And, best of all, no matter where you live--even in

Orange County

!--the mail carrier will deliver. Funny story: When I first moved to my little canyon neighborhood I accidentally got two copies of


in my box, the other one addressed to my neighbor. He turned out to be

Jim Mamer



political science high school teacher, now retired and gloating in


.  We discovered parallel subscriptions and, yes, friendship here in the hills.

Among the many Jimbo and I get I find news and reviews, not to mention ideas for future episodes and potential guests over on Bibliocracy Radio, and of course new books to read or recommend. Two of the best of these I made time to consume this week. No reason. I just sat down with a glass of red wine and went for it. It's nice when things make sense, or so I advise my undergraduate writers at UC Irvine. So of course opening the newest Bookforum, with the frighteningly beautiful Clarice Lispector on the cover, I quickly turned to the long, polemical, funny piece by historian Rick Perlstein.  He is author of, most recently, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. So, no, I didn't have to stretch too much by way of Orange Countyizing this morning's column since I live in downtown Nixonland. Perlstein takes on historian Landon R. Y. Storrs, both praising the research in and challenging the argument of her book,
  The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left. He's more than a little skeptical of Storrs' blaming anti-communism for pretty much everything, notably the shift in the politics of some former Lefty activists. More complicated, he says, and in part because of the "memory hole" dug to, it would almost seem, purposely obscure history and biography.

Rachel Kushner (Telex From Cuba) has the cover essay, on Lispector, very valuable to me since I had not read Lispector much at all, and not since grad school, not until Jason Roberts (A Sense of the World), my "pencil pal" mailed me a copy of the newest new translation of the singular Brazilian scribe of the imagination, her penultimate novel and an amazing book, to be sure, 
The Hour of the Star, translated by Benjamin Moser. Moser, translator and biographer, seems to be the expert on Lispecter and in Kushner's "Lipstick Traces," she tells his story too, by way of teaching this newly reintroduced reader more about an international literary superstar I am now so motivated to keep reading. Still reading, but perhaps the most wonderfully affirming long essay in the Dec/Jan 2013 issue is Jackson Lears' both gentle and demolishing take-down of Jared (Guns, Germs, and Steel) Diamond, the happy intellectual celebrity who dresses up like Captain Spaulding and tries revisionist history, according to Lears, without mentioning economics, exploitation or Empire. Sheesh. Just when you thought you could go back into the New Guinea jungle to figure out what everything means, Lears says don't, not with an otherwise nice (and wildly popular) guy "in thrall to neoliberal politics and pop-evolutionary biological determinism."

Are we having fun yet? I am. But not too much fun to put down Bookforum and pick up The Baffler. Founded by Thomas Frank (What's the Matter with Kansas?), punk music aficionado and business culture's pain-in-the-neck sender-upper, its editorial offices burned down some years back, even as the Socialist-leaning Frank kept writing, both as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal (really, no shit!) and in numerous terrific books including, most recently, Pity the Billionaire. He's a frequent guest on Jon Wiener's excellent "Four O'Clock Report" the KPFK Radio show where the two of them make me laugh. I once congratulated JW on a particular episode,
 cleverly titling my email "subject" line "Hot dog!" and noting the appearance, together, of two guys with names evocative of lunch at an Angels game, but apparently neither thought that was very funny. Anyway, the newest Baffler is hot, and it is packed. Revamped and seemingly well-funded, and published by The MIT Press, with terrific art (Ralph Steadman, Brad Holland, among others) and high production values, I'll go on for just a minute here about the piece I have liked best--if predictably--so far. It's by another fave writer with wit and an ax to grind, this one all over the paradigm of sick Republican political ideology and hucksterism. I've noticed that unhappy synchronicity while going through my Dad's mail, as he is on every mailing list of every nutty far-right outfit out there. And I do mean "out there." And also on the mailing list of every anti-aging, miracle cure, snake oil con game direct-mail scheme. No doubt you anticipate--wait, who?-- yes the very same favorite Rick Perlstein's argument (ain't life grand?) because, of course, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between the two. Perlstein, here in "The Long Con: Mail-order Conservatism," shows how both the political hucksters and the commercial ones rely on the same tactics, rhetoric, worldview.  He then helpfully locates Mitt Romney, recent lunch guest of President Barack Obama, in this bonanza of bullshit. Much of it was developed, expanded, exploited by the evil genius of the Right, Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail soliciter who figured out that people who like to be yelled at by Rush and who read at only the level of TV Guide and Readers Digest and Parade could easily be conned using the same appeals of folksy nativism and revisionist triumphalism, just to start. Especially oldsters.

"The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began," argues Perlstein, in this funny, mean piece documenting the cruel lie that markets itself like coupons and lotteries. But the real liar was, Perlstein says, poor Willard from Massachusetts, whose lying and more lying (and even more!) just wasn't quite enough lying to convince the base of the "conservative" electorate (Tea Partiers, fundies, homo and women and illegal haters) that he was really lying this time. I mean genuinely lying. Not with previous pro-choice and pro-health care reform positions. And he was such a lousy liar! Wow, lucky me, two Rick Perlstein pieces.

And speaking of people who are not the president, The Baffler's editors found the manuscript of a perfectly delightful never-published novel or something or other by the Left sociologist and legend C. Wright Mills (1916-1962). "If I Were President" was written sometime after his influential book The Power Elite and evokes Upton Sinclair. Needless to say, this is funny and poignant. Mills wrote it on a dare, to himself. Sample, on choosing his hypothetical cabinet:  "It was of course predicted that since Mills had been a professor he would probably recruit a lot of professors. He did try, but it turned out that there were two kinds of college professors: smart ones and dumb ones. The smart ones were smart in the same way that anyone is smart, although they usually knew more, having spent more time at it. The dumb ones likewise, although perhaps a little more lazy than most and certainly more pretentious." This kinda thing is catnip to Mr. Bib. Maybe you too? If so, check out Pedagogy 405, a newish blog on teaching you might like.

The Baffler, number 21, also includes poetry from other impressive journalists and creative writers, including Barbara Ehrenreich, the great poets  Harryette Mullen and Tony Hoagland, and a short story by George Singleton (Stray Decorum) called "Invasion of Grenada" about the most obscure war reenactors ever. 

You can read excerpts from The Baffler on line here.  And then, of course, subscribe.  And Bookforum, too. These mags rely on our support. And we rely on them. And who knows who on your block might be a fellow fan?

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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