I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they’re exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I’ll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer’s colorful newspaper. Baker’s foreword and Brentano’s captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He’s essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn’t on my wishlist but they knew I’d like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
Several years ago, before I even thought of moving to Los Angeles, my mother, on a whim, bought an Ed Ruscha book for me. I grew up in an art friendly house with frequent trips to galleries and museums, and in college I took a modern art history class and spent a day going to art galleries whenever I went to New York, yet I had barely ever heard of Ruscha. Nonetheless, I found his paintings intriguing. They have always seemed like disembodied signs coming from some void. Then I moved to Los Angeles and saw how this town is like a graveyard for signs and billboards and advertising and words. In certain neighborhoods, there are decaying signs everywhere you look. Some are still in use; others sit forlornly atop buildings advertising some long lost place. I think there is enough room in Los Angeles to not have to go the trouble of taking these signs down and replacing them. In this vast and flat landscape you can just put up a new sign and leave the old one up for decoration. Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) celebrates and pays homage to this living graveyard of a city, and from what I understand, his reputation has blossomed of late as he has shed the limiting mantle of West Coast Artist. A new book, the first ever monograph of his work, has come out recently. It is a beautiful book and it represents an elevation of the stature of this deserving artist. Here are 13 pages of art by Ed Ruscha.I love reading about the behind the scenes machinations of politics and government. There are so many events of global significance that are swayed or even caused by the actions and words of the two or three most powerful men in the world at any time. The idea that most of our recent Presidents have taped their behind-closed-doors conversations is almost too good to be true for anyone interested in the inner workings of American power politics, and a collection of these tapes has come out. The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President is a nine CD and book set that includes the taped conversations of every president from FDR to Reagan (excluding Carter). It chronicles some of he country’s worst moments (Nixon’s “Smoking Gun” tapes) and some of our best (Truman hashing out the Marshall Plan). The ninth CD is a companion documentary produced by American Radio Works. There are many amazing and readable books about history out there, but it’s not every day that you come across such compelling and significant source material.
I am back. My long hiatus was partially due to grad school applications, heavy workload, holiday binge drinking and just sheer laziness. I have been meaning write about all the books I read, some of which definitely stand out, as (I hope) you will see. The first book I want to mention is Crash by J.G. Ballard. I rarely stop reading books that I begin, even if I strongly dislike them. The only book/memoir I stopped reading in the recent years is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire, which I found pompous, belittling and badly written. Nevertheless, that is not why I stopped reading Crash. I intend to finish Crash one of these days. That is, if I can overcome the absurdity of the main character Vaughan’s obsession with car crashes and reconstruction of scenes for erotic purposes, which did not resonate too well with me. I am an avid fan of weird and disturbing situations (e.g. Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris), but Ballard’s dry, calm style and heavy language adds another layer of complicity to an already shocking storyline. I have by no means given up on Crash, though I find it difficult to return to the read. Good luck to any and all that pick up this novel. FYI: I have not seen the movie, but I heard that it is quite weird and disturbing.Around the period that I was reading Crash, I was also studying for the GREs and took a week off from work to visit my aunt in Madison, WI to study and get away from NYC. I figured that Crash was not the best book to read while trying to study for the GREs and turned to Harry Potter for a dose of happiness, as well as to clear my mind. I had not read The Order of the Phoenix and borrowed it from my roommate Uzay. I started on the plane and by the time I landed in Madison I was, as with the previous four novels, hooked. So much for studying for the GREs. I read straight through The Order of the Phoenix and was pleasantly surprised to find that J.K. Rowling decided to reveal a darker side of Harry Potter. I was curious to see if Rowling would ever cast Potter as the not-so-perfect adolescent, which she successfully did in this installment. I enjoyed the clash between Dumbledore and the Ministry, the background stories that came with the introduction of the Order, the blackmailing campaigns that attempt to undermine evidence of Voldemort’s return and the developing relationship between Sirius Black and Potter. After a long sleepless night and not studying for the GREs, I headed straight to Borders and picked up The Half Blood Prince, which had been published very recently.The Half Blood Prince was an entertaining transition to the approaching grand finale. There were the cutesy parts of love stories and jealousies between Hermione and Ron, and Potter and Ginny Weasley, as well as the development of a closer camaraderie between Dumbledore and Potter, which I had long anticipated. The mystery surrounding the identity of the Half Blood Prince is well crafted and kept me guessing until the very end. Potter’s rival at Hogwarts Draco Malfoy has, in the meanwhile, been recruited by Voldemort to carry on mysterious activities at the school. As Dumbledore is showing Potter Voldemort’s past and preparing him for the looming battle (one book away, I dare say) Malfoy is brewing his own plans. The Half Blood Prince is a good staging book, with clever twists and turns, that left me hungry for the last novel. I am a big Harry Potter fan for a number of reasons (they’re easy to read, fun, thrilling and I feel like I’m on Prozac when I read them) but the series’ foremost quality is its continuity and how, at the end of each book, it gets me waiting for the next one. I hope it is soon.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5See Also: Emre’s previous reading journal
You’ve got to hand it to Oprah. After a public snub from Jonathan Franzen, an abrupt switch to focusing on classic books, and a return to the contemporary with a confessional memoir that turns out to plagiarized – resulting in the very public humiliation of its author on her show – one would think that Oprah would have run out of opportunities to grab big headlines with her book club. And yet, by selecting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and convincing the famously reclusive author to appear on her show, she has done it yet again.I had a couple of thoughts about this pick. In the early days of the club, Oprah selected quite a few emotionally challenging books, often with female protagonists in some sort of peril. With her selection of Franzen’s The Corrections, however, the club broke out of its shell and then traversed the various ups and downs noted above. Still, it is fascinating to me that this unabashedly mass market phenomenon, the TV show book club, would pick a book that is by all accounts harrowing and devastatingly serious and not an easy read in any sense. It’s not the first time Oprah has selected a formally “difficult” book. Recall the “Summer of Faulkner.” Still, to take a book that is all of the above and also contemporary seems rather incredible. It will also be interesting, if The Road goes on to win a Pulitizer or National Book Award, to have had Oprah “anoint” a book before our more formal institutions have.Secondly, I couldn’t help but think about poor Franzen as I read the news that McCarthy would appear on Oprah’s show. Franzen, of course, famously feuded with Oprah after she selected his book and he was publicly ambivalent about being an “Oprah author.” This led to plenty of comments like this one from an independent bookstore owner at the time of the controversy, saying that she felt “that good literature cannot be an Oprah selection.” With McCarthy appearing on the show for his “first television interview ever,” it’s hard to make that argument any more. We’re talking about a legitimate Nobel Prize candidate here (and somehow this is different from Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude being selected a while back). And poor Franzen, taking a public stand for his art and facing plenty of ridicule at the time, has had his legs cut out from under him by a literary giant – a famously reclusive one at that – eschewing the hand-wringing and taking the Oprah honor in stride.Update: It’s been pointed out to me that The Road missed its chance to win the National Book Award – it went to The Echo Maker, as you’ll recall. The Road is still in the running for the Pulitzer, but as it is far from the typical Pulitzer candidate, I’d guess its chances there are slim. So McCarthy will have to be satisfied with the unlikely duo of an Oprah Pick and a TMN Tournament of Books win (which the book appears likely to snag).
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh’s labor of love, released it’s fourth book this past week: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France’s modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI’ve done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I’ve put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that’s it, that’s the whole book. And that’s pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I’ve described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
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