People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader's comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24's President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running - Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes - and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life - and particularly public opinion and national politics - a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, "So this is the little lady who started this Great War." Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe's novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe's lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel's sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative - by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic - is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom's Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe's work - not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass - is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass' work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass' narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe's, but it is Stowe's - the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama - that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass' best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe's Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine - in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country's readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain's age and history of skin cancer). It's all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
I recently got in the ring with Ed Champion of The Bat Segundo Show to talk about A Field Guide to the North American Family. A victory, a loss, or a draw? You be the judge. (Helpful Hint: It gets better as it goes on. Guinness is, indeed, good for you.)And, assuming you're still interested, you can see page spreads, and read an interview, in FILE Magazine. Thanks!
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Houghton Mifflin has posted a long excerpt of Jonathan Safran Foer's forthcoming book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Amazon also has the excerpt up.) And, well, I don't quite know what to say about it. Have a look. You'll see. It's a long, furious stream of consciousness - the warp speed thought process of the 8-year-old, genius protagonist, Oskar - with a punch in the gut finale. It seems that this book is sure to produce a frenzy among critics and readers when it comes out in April, but it's too early to know whether that frenzy will be positive or negative. On Neal Pollack's blog, the quality of the excerpt and the book's use of 9/11 as a plot point are already being debated.
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The role of media in war has long been big and complicated, but by the time Iraq rolled around the media had become both more and less powerful. TV news has been beset by falling ratings, aging viewers, and a sense that the national newscasts and their anchors are less and less relevant. At the same time, for many Americans, the network news and their cable counterparts are the only points of contact with perhaps the most important geopolitical event of a generation. Our newsmen and women are both weak and powerful.This dynamic fascinates me, which is why I'm intrigued by a newly released book by Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz. Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War is a chronicle of how the network news operations have dealt with covering an unpopular war that put employees in physical danger and forced executives to toe the line between "patriotism" and dissent. The Washington Post has an excerpt from the book. It's worth checking out for anyone interested in the topic:Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC's "Today" show, [Katie] Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney's declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.See Also: Instant News: Bob Woodruff Back from the Brink
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