It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.
They recently announced the finalists for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Awards. The winners will be announced on March 4th. I tend to be more interested in "critics circle" awards when it comes to books and movies. Critics have to read or watch many more books or movies than the average person, and it is their job to pass judgment on this sort of thing. It is also important that they are not "insiders" in their respective industries, thus their choices are relatively unsullied by politics and personality conflicts. Nor is anyone really campaigning for these awards as one might campaign for an Oscar, a Pulitzer, or a Booker. Here are the nominees:FictionMonica Ali, Brick Lane (Scribner)Edward P. Jones, The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)Caryl Phillips, A Distant Shore (Knopf)Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Tobias Wolff, Old School (Knopf)General NonfictionCaroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking)Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday)Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy (Knopf)Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner)William T. Vollmann, Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney's)Biography/AutobiographyBlake Bailey, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador)Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press)Carol Loeb Shloss, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton)PoetryCarolyn Forche, Blue Hour (HarperCollins)Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf)Venus Khoury-Ghata, She Says (Graywolf)Susan Stewart, Columbarium (University of Chicago Press)Mary Szybist, Granted (Alice James Books)CriticismDagoberto Gilb, Gritos (Grove)Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney's)Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (Walker)Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)My thoughts: Brick Lane, The Known World, and Gulag continue to make appearances as finalists for major awards. None of the National Book Award winners are even listed as finalists for these awards. McSweeney’s is shown some love for its two most serious and most ambitious releases of the year. Now, if only they would take this as a cue to leave the forced silliness of their other releases behind.
Scott's Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
Given the endless recent discussion of newspapers’ demise—a five percent circulation drop since March was just announced—comparatively little mind has been paid to the death of the comic strip. This may be because the comics have been rotting away for years, as useless as classifieds. With a few exceptions, characters are stale, situations dull, and jokes hopelessly flaccid. Once the playground of McCay, Gross, and Kelly, the funny pages aren’t much fun, or all that interesting. If this form of humor leaves us, conventional wisdom says, it’s been plodding towards the exit for years. And anything that kills The Lockhorns might not be so bad. Though I love the comics deeply, I’ve come to accept their fate. Or, rather, I did—until I began to follow the work of cartoonist Richard Thompson. If one strip might serve as an argument against the decline, it’s his terrific Cul de Sac—recently collected in Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics. The comic is vibrant, warm, and beautifully drawn; unlike its staggering peers, it’s outrageously alive. Cul de Sac is proof that the medium has juice, even as it dwindles. This unintended subtext adds a layer of poignancy: this wonderful creation was born at a terrible time. In 2007, Cul de Sac spread to the dailies from the Washington Post Magazine. I’m not sure how I found it—my city’s paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, reserves its space for Hägar the Horrible and Rex Morgan, M.D.—but I’ve come to read it each day on the Web. The story is simple enough: a group of children plays games, attends preschool, and finds adults confusing. Their parents are baffled and thwarted; a teenager stews in his room. There’s an eccentric teacher and a pompous guinea pig. And that is pretty much it. Yet like the great kids’ titles—Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, even Little Orphan Annie—Cul de Sac draws strength from realism, facing its characters’ fears. In one early strip, the four-year-old Alice Otterloop spends Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house. When a friend inquires about it, she describes a gravy spill which led her “to take a bath in Grandma’s scary bathtub. I still smell like her crabapple-lye shampoo.” Her friend’s response as the two walk away: “My grandma smells like the bingo hall.” It is sad and bewildering and true. And as with Peanuts, such dialogue seems funnier in retrospect—we glean the cuter parts and toss away the rest. It’s only upon reading these strips that we recall their characters’ troubles—and those of our younger selves. This underpinning adds heft, and makes sweeter episodes—Snoopy cavorting with Woodstock; Calvin and Hobbes sipping cocoa; Alice talking to bees—feel earned, not saccharine. In a more recent Cul de Sac, Alice sits in bed, grumpy as all hell: “Ooh, I can feel it. I’m going to have a major tantrum today. I can feel the pressure building.” Her mother bursts in, oblivious, telling her to come for breakfast—waffles with whipped cream and strawberries! In a lesser comic—Hi and Lois or Blondie—the kicker is obvious: “Maybe today won’t be so rotten after all!” Instead, we get this: Alice, teeth clenched, seething, “Oh, it’s going to be a bad day…” A friend of mine dismisses Cul de Sac’s humor as deriving from “kids saying grown-up things.” I don’t know that he’s wrong. But when a writer presents his characters in all of their dimensions, such concerns seem secondary. In a 2008 interview with The Comics Reporter, Thompson said, “I didn’t want the strip to be about the zany antics of those little dickens, Alice and Petey. I wanted it to be about the kinda gently surreal parts of childhood, where the kids don’t know what’s going on or how things work, and maybe the adults don’t either. The mom and dad are good parents but not great parents.” Being able to “get it right” this way is rare, regardless of genre or form. That alone makes Cul de Sac worthy. We can only hope that, as there once was for Watterson, Schulz, and the rest, there will be a medium to support Thompson’s gift long into the future.
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The Rake put together a terrific column on lazy reviews, the prevalence of lists masquerading as criticism, and the army of meta-critics that has emerged online. I'm late in linking to it, but it's a very worthwhile read. A taste:Yes, Virginia, your pal the Rake has been willing witness to countless hours of VH1's laziest programming. He's not made of stone. The professional listmakers' core insanity lies in the way in which they hold up sub-B list comedians and other cultural freaks as insightful, worthy commentators. Certainly there are subjects upon which Ron Jeremy is an expert, but the Top 100 Scorchtastic Movie Kisses is not one of them, not least of all because the very object of his commentary is chimerical.There's more, too.