For my first post, I’ve picked the hilarious and aptly named memoir, The Old Man and the Swamp, by Grand Rapids native, John Sellers. Sellers is primarily a freelance, pop-culture columnist whose work never strays too far from television and movie commentary. He’s written tv reviews for the New York Times about “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and had a sporadically-recurring spot in the now-defunct “The Odds” column for the Atlantic. The Old Man and the Swamp is his second book (his first is Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock saved my life). It’s a mash-up of the rocky relationship with his father which builds up to a cathartic, if overly saccharine, trek through the mosquito-infested woods of Hillsdale County in search of the elusive Copperbelly water snake.

Like the flatulently irreverent Ignatius P. Reilly, or a neurotic Yossarian, Sellers’ father, Mark, is a comic protagonist of epic proportions. Through a series of quick moving vignettes in the first chapter we quickly learn that the elder Sellers is a pot-smoking, erstwhile Lutheran minister whose passion for snakes leads him to quit his unsuccessful sacred vocation in 1978 to embark an even more unsuccessful secular career as a herpetologist. Alcoholism, Bob Dylan, and his father’s blatant disregard for social norms form the nexus of the early childhood anecdotes that Sellers shares with us about his father. Gainfully unemployed, he spends his time looking for snakes or, sitting on the porch sipping from his “Jar of Death” – a mixture of instant coffee, Carnation powdered milk, diet coke, and chablis. As John Sellers gets older, his father’s lifestyle causes strain in the relationship. To reconnect with his father, Sellers decides to accompany his father on his annual Spring “Swamping” trip in order catalogue the local snake population.

Last year, in an interview on the Diane Rhem Show, Salman Rushdie was asked why, after countless approaches, he had finally decided to write a memoir about his life. His response was that he’d “had the misfortune of acquiring an interesting life.” What makes the Old Man and the Swamp work is not the inherent excitement of Sellers’ story which becomes increasingly cloying as Sellers meanders towards the climax of the book when he learns to accept his father and the odd relationship between them. Instead, it is Sellers ability to tint his awkward and painful childhood experiences with a comic hue that makes readers laugh out loud that is the driving force of this book.

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I consider myself a pretty literate guy – I have a favorite poet, I read the fiction submissions in the Atlantic, I know who David Foster Wallace is – but it seems like every time I set foot in a bookstore, I feel overwhelmed by the dearth of titles and authors I’m able to recognize.

In an effort to provide some semblance of structure to my otherwise ad hoc method of choosing new fiction titles (i.e. famous author, cool cover art) I’ve decided to localize my reading experience. So, as a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan I’ve set books by Michigan authors as my point of departure into the literary world. Through this process I hope to get a better grasp of whose writing what in my home state and find a more rational platform for choosing new books to read.

Comments, criticisms, or curses – all your thoughts are welcome!