For almost the entire time I’ve had a GoodReads profile, under “favorite books” I’ve just put: “All of them. Except the ones you like, probably.” It was as true in May 2007 as it is today: I hate everyone’s super trendy, faddish fave, including Ernest Cline.
Enter Michael J. Nelson, my childhood comedy hero, and one of his RiffTrax writers, Conor Lastowka, and their podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back. They’ve turned their attention from mediocre movies to mediocre books—in this case, the oeuvre of Ernest Cline. (There is talk of continuing the podcast and branching into other books, but so far nothing has materialized.) And while the podcast is rooted more in humor than in dissecting bad writing, the humor does (inadvertently?) highlight some of the more subtle traits of weak writing. Until we get a podcast that’s a round table of editors picking apart an anonymized slush pile, this is the next best thing.
What regional colloquialism in your area would baffle people from elsewhere?
This isn’t one that I use personally (I’m Philly-adjacent rather than proper Philly), but jawn can have such a broad usage that you really need context to understand what any particular usage is referring to.
I’ve been told by college friends from elsewhere in the US that “water ice” is a weird name for shaved ice/Italian ice/snow cones, but it seems logical to me: it’s ice plus (flavored sugar) water. “Hoagie” might or might not throw people for a loop as well. I still retain the regional habit of using “anymore” to mean “these days,” but I imagine it’s pretty clear what I mean when I say, “I’m just so tired anymore.”
What’s something you call by a name that differs from what most people in your region call it?
My mom calls them pocketbooks and I call them purses. I don’t know which one of us represents the majority term in southeastern Pennsylvania, though.
What’s a normal food in your region that people in other regions might be weirded out by?
I’ll cheat on this one and take an international perspective rather than my upbringing: Swedes are 100% chill with fruit on pizza, and my American friends are unjustly horrified at this.
What’s something in your area with an official name almost nobody refers to it by?
The Globe/Globen is technically the Ericsson Globe but no one calls it that. The accompanying arena is also technically the Tele2/Friends Arena, but I just think of it as “The Globe Arena.”
I wracked my brain for Philadelphia but couldn’t think of one. I didn’t realize until I was getting an image for this entry that Love Park’s official name is John F. Kennedy Plaza.
What are the names of some convenience stores in your area?
Magiska Amerika Södern was a free choice I allowed myself at the library, despite a pretty heavy bookish agenda. (My book club roster now includes four different groups.) What would a Swede make of the American South?
Author: Daniel Svanberg
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33 stars
Language scaling: N/A (only available in Swedish)
Summary: Daniel Svanberg spends nearly two weeks traveling throughout the American South, singing the praises of Southern cuisine and musical history and asking people why they love America.
Recommended audience: Anyone nostalgic for those halcyon days before the 2016 election
In-depth thoughts: The first thing I realized, when I sat down to write this post, was that I don’t think I ever wrote about Amerikanskt here, which is a tragedy.
And the fact that my first instinct, with this book, is to think about another book pretty much says it all. Svanberg is often self-aware enough to recognize that he is a naive and wide-eyed wanderer (his own language, not mine) but he glosses over those moments in favor of enthusing over roadside diners, sweet tea, and the blues. You can’t blame him for that, of course, but the result is that the book tows a weird line. Svanberg seems like he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not really digging very deeply here, and yet he makes no comment at all on the lack of depth. There is engagement with the more brutal and inhumane parts of America’s history that played out in the South but it feels very pat and surface-level: glib statements about how terrible slavery and Jim Crow was, but no connection to the legacy that remains even today; an enthusiastic nostalgia for Americana and everything the “retro” vibe entails without considering the flip side of that coin.
There are a couple other conceits that run throughout the book: images of heavenly choirs are invoked at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the day’s travels close the end of every day, and “The Shadow,” a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?…is a constant companion.
If I were a Swede reading this, I think I’d be disappointed. The over-reliance on the above cutesy conceits takes up valuable word real estate; the resulting pictures painted are neither broad nor detailed. But I’m not Swedish! I’ve even done my own (shorter) road trip through the region from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and back, up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t need someone to tell me what it’s like; I’ve been there.
Instead, the value I got from it was the little Swedish observations, similar to comments my sambo would make during his visits over Christmas and New Year’s. (“The cars here are HUGE.” “Wow, that’s a lot of churches for such a small town.”) And that’s something you really have to actually be American to appreciate: having someone comment on the Tarantino-esque “little differences” you’d never notice yourself because it’s such an ingrained part of your existence. The cars have always been this size; there have always been three different churches in this tiny little village of only a couple hundred people. Why would it ever be any different?
My favorite that Svanberg points out is the little red flag on American mailboxes you flip up to indicate that there’s mail inside, either to pick up or to be delivered. Of course that’s different between the two countries; I just never would have considered Sweden’s lack of a little red flag on mailboxes something worth remarking on. I can say with 100% certainty that I never felt like it was something missing here. Only when someone else pointed it out did I realize “Oh, I guess maybe that would be something weird and noteworthy if you grew up literally anywhere else.”
Sadly, those moments were few and far between, and more ink was spilled on little metaphorical asides about The Shadow that I feel a little guilty for not enjoying because it seems like Svanberg was really aiming for pathos with them. Most of the time the book felt a little slow and draggy without really digging too deeply, even though the writing itself was pretty peppy and engaging. Other Americans might enjoy an outsider’s perspective on their own country, but at the end of the day, Amerikanskt is the better book.
Friday was a rough day for me for a couple of different reasons, but the news and commentary surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings certainly didn’t help. In my rage and frustration, I turned to my books (cheaper than therapy!) and pulled out Walden.
It’s a book I’ve loved since high school, and there’s always something comforting in going back to the books of your formative years. It’s like a hug from a loving parent, or your favorite comfort food. But more than that I needed a reminder of what I miss from America, what I’m proud of, to reorient my inner compass.
“Reading” is always my favorite essay in the whole collection. It has precious little to do with anything I was upset about on Friday, but still, it helped. I might even commit the entire essay to memory, so soothing is the act of reading it. For now, two of my favorite quotes:
The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.
And this one, which struck me the first time I read it. I copied it on to the notebook cover for my English binder immediately after I read it for AP English in the summer before 11th grade; if I were the artsy type I would cross-stitch it or write it out in calligraphy, frame it, and hang it on the wall alongside my bookshelves.
A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.