The History of Literature #410 – What Is American Literature? (with Ilan Stavans)

America, America, America… a continent, a nation, a people, and a whole lotta books. But how does America define itself? Who defines it? Where did the idea of American exceptionalism come from? And how does literature fit into any of this? In this episode, Jacke talks to Professor Ilan Stavans about his new book, What Is American Literature?

ILAN STAVANS is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NPR podcast “In Contrast”. The recipient of numerous international awards, his work, adapted into film, theatre, TV, and radio, has been translated into twenty languages.

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The History of Literature #158 – “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien


In the 1960s and ’70s, the Vietnam War dominated the hearts and minds of a generation of Americans. In 1990, the American writer Tim O’Brien, himself a former soldier, published “The Things They Carried,” a short story that became an instant classic. Through its depiction of the members of a platoon in Vietnam, told largely through the tangible and intangible things in their possession as they humped their way through the jungle, O’Brien’s story captures the soul and psyches of young men engaged in a war they cannot understand and filled with a longing for home that must compete with the brutal circumstances of present-day reality. In this episode of the History of Literature, host Jacke Wilson reads the entire short story “The Things They Carried,” then invites Mike Palindrome, President of the Literature Supporters Club, to join him for a discussion of the Vietnam War and the literary masterpiece it gave rise to.

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The History of Literature #157 – Travel Books (with Mike Palindrome)

“The world is a book,” said Augustine, “and those who do not travel read only one page.” But what about books ABOUT traveling? Do they double the pleasure? Transport us to a different place? Inspire and enchant? Or are they more like a forced march through someone else’s interminable photo album? Mike Palindrome, President of the Literature Supporters Club, joins us for a look at his literary journey to London and Stockholm, summer reading, and a draft of the greatest travel books of all time.

Works and authors discussed include As You Like It by William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy by C.L. Barber, Virginia Woolf, My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Bill Bryson, Herodotus, Rick Steves, Eat Pray Love, Under a Tuscan Sun, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, My Life in Franceby Julia Child, Invisible Cities and other works by Italo Calvino, The Travels of Marco Polo, Patricia Highsmith, James Joyce, Henry James, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, Another Day of Life by Kapuscinski, What Is the What by Dave Eggers, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, Roots by Alex Haley, Under the Tuscan SunA Sentimental Journey by Laurence Stern, the Let’s Go series, the Lonely Planet series, Across Asia on the CheapInto the Wild and other works by Jon Krakauer, the Odyssey, Mark Twain, India: A Million Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, A Room with a View, Kingsley Amis, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Anagarika Govinda.

Blasphemous! Hear the original discussion of Shakespeare’s comedies in Episode 83 – Overrated! Top 10 Books You Don’t Need To Read.

Nabokov’s Lolita gets a day in the sun in Episode 112 – The Novelist and the Witch Doctor – Unpacking Nabokov’s Case Against Freud (with Joshua Ferris).

A trip through Tibet? Reading Madame Bovary? Yes indeed. Hear the whole story in Episode 79 – Music that Melts the Stars – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

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At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Saying Farewell to a Dynasty)

Maybe it’s the fresh take on the space-time bending and head-blowing implications of Goodnight Moon, which has retroactively haunted my many thousands of readings of that book. Or maybe it’s just my usual interest in comparisons of Rome and America. In either case, I was struck by this passage:

The stagnation of the Roman Empire may carry important lessons for a more modern superpower: The United States. We too are a huge, rich, powerful nation that for much of our history has dominated the field of competitors. We too have a whole century of dominance – the 20th – under our belt. And if there’s one thing we don’t want to do, it’s turn into the Roman Empire.

What’s that, you say? You’ve heard enough of these theories about the demise of Rome and what it means for America today? Well…reader, I cheated! This isn’t about Rome at all, but about quite a different historical example. The undoctored quote is this:
Continue reading

Who’s Cheating America?: Murky Waters

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I try to avoid politics here on the blog as much as possible. (Except when I’m writing books about it.) But if there’s one viewpoint I expect all thoughtful Americans to share it’s the old 90s slogan: Work Hard And Play By The Rules.

We can all agree on this, surely! We want hardworking people who play by the rules to do well. We can disagree with what this means for governmental policy, but I don’t really think anyone can disagree with the idea that working hard and playing by the rules should be valued by our society. (If you prefer instead laziness and/or cheating, you’re in a different political universe.)

With that in mind, I’m introducing a new series. Who’s taking shortcuts? Who’s not playing by the rules? I’m not focusing on the big scandals, whether they be financial institutions or the well-covered trials and tribulations of the politicelebrity class.

Rather, I’m focusing on the little guys. The next-door neighbors who bend the rules, who cross the lines. The get-rich-quick schemers. The ones who aren’t working hard. The ones who aren’t playing by the rules.

America, who’s cheating?

Here’s a story about a man named Waters who lived in Massachusetts. He opened a rare coin business – oh, you know those kind of guys! Passionate about their hobbies. A little nerdy. You see them in the mall, standing behind their counter, and you think: well, god bless him, he’s probably been collecting coins since he was a kid. Now he ekes out a living at it.

And you also think:

That store will be closed in six months.

Right? Coin collecting? Why not just open a juice bar or a bookstore? Doomed, doomed, doomed. Well, this man also decided to open up a couple of other entities: a broker-dealership (i.e. seller of stocks) and an investment adviser (i.e. someone who handles other people’s money).

So far, so good. That shy little coin collector has a real job on the side. Nothing dishonest about that.

Except… maybe there was.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts charged Waters with an array of securities fraud and other violations on October 17, 2012. On November 29, 2012, Waters pleaded guilty to sixteen counts of securities fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice arising out of both the conduct that is the subject of the Commission’s civil action and a criminal scheme through which Waters defrauded clients of his rare coin business out of as much as $7.8 million.

Oh no! What was happening? Ripping off other collectors? Maybe he was just smarter than they were? Knew more about the coins? Maybe he was just very good at buying and selling?

Under this scheme, Waters defrauded coin customers out of as much as $7.8 million by selling coins at prices inflated, on average, by 600% and by inducing coin purchasers to return coins to him, on the false representation that he would sell those coins on the customers’ behalf, when, in fact, he sold most or all of the coins and kept the proceeds for himself.

Ouch. Anything else?

The criminal information further alleges that Waters engaged in money laundering through two transactions totaling $77,000.

Well, what’s a little money laundering among friends? And anyway, it’s not like he lied about it when he was caught. He fessed up right away, didn’t he?

Finally, the criminal information alleges that Waters made multiple misrepresentations to Commission staff, including that there were no investors in his investment-related partnerships, in order to conceal the fact that investor money was misappropriated in a fraudulent scheme. Waters is charged with obstruction of justice related to this conduct.

D’oh! But apart from the coin issues, what about the investment advisory business? Surely he helped people there, right? Made money for their pensions? Exercised prudence?

According to the criminal information, from at least 2007 through 2012, Waters used fictitious investment-related partnerships to draw in investors, misappropriate their investment money, and spend the vast majority of it on personal and business expenses and debts.

They were sophisticated investors, I trust? Pension funds? Investment banks?

Waters is alleged to have raised at least $839,000 from at least thirteen investors, including $500,000 from his church in March 2012.

His church??? So depressing.

So what happens to this cheater? Does crime pay in America? Not always!

As a result of his guilty plea to this criminal conduct, Waters was sentenced on April 26, 2013 to 17 years in federal prison and three years of supervised release, and was ordered to pay $9,025,691 in restitution and forfeiture.

And final judgment was entered by a Massachusetts federal court on December 4, 2013.

Remember, everyone! Beware the Comic Book Guy, the Coin Collector Guy, the Baseball Card Guy, and the Smiling Philatelist. Particularly when they’re also offering to invest your money in fictitious investment-related partnerships.

A Tale of Two Cities: London and New York in 2013

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Just got back from a quick trip to London. I’ve always loved London, but this time I was overwhelmed. Not from the bookstores one stumbles upon, although those were fantastic as usual. Not because I look out of my hotel window and think I see where the Beatles held their rooftop concert. Not because of the glories of clotted cream. No, there was something else this time.

There’s a passage somewhere in which an English author (Martin Amis?) attempts to convey the vastness of America to a U.K. audience.* He starts by saying that you could match up London with New York well enough, but after that you’d quickly start running out of reasonable comparisons. Boston would be the equivalent of Edinburgh. Chicago would be Manchester. Detroit would be Glasgow. But what would be comparable to Los Angeles? And you’d still have San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Dallas, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston – the list goes on. If I remember correctly he ticked through several of these, each comparison getting more ludicrous, before delivering the clincher: “New Orleans would be Hull.”

That’s right. New Orleans is not Hull. And although I adored London, the jingo in me thought, “Jeez, you probably can’t even give them London.”

New York just seemed to rule everything, in those days. It was the engine that powered the world’s economy and its culture. Bigger, better, smarter, tougher. More excitement, more energy than anywhere else in the world.

That’s what I thought twenty years ago when I was traveling around the world, engaging in conversations with fellow backpackers in youth hostels:

“What’s the best city in the world?”

“Do you mean best or my favorite?”

“Well, let’s hear both – we have time!”

Rome was always my favorite, with London usually coming in second. A soft spot for Chicago. But I had to credit New York as the best, and so did everyone else, and we didn’t take arguments to the contrary very seriously. If there was a championship belt worn by cities, New York had claimed it – probably sometime in the 1940s, if not before. Since then there had not even been any serious contenders. New York reigned as the Greatest City in the World, fighting only with historical Rome and Athens and Paris and London for a position as Greatest City of All-Time.

I didn’t think that during this trip. And what saddened me is why.  Continue reading