Peter Baker, one of the Times‘ more prolific and thoughtful chroniclers of goings-on in the nation’s capital, published an interesting piece earlier this week on Obama’s reading list. He keeps the psychology to a minimum, fortunately, but does find a few things to parse out here about the president’s personality and how it’s reflected in his choice of reading material:
Unlike many of his predecessors, who devoured American history and biographies, Mr. Obama’s tastes lean toward the literary, in keeping with a man whose first memoir deeply explored issues of race and self. While Mr. Obama has read his share of Abraham Lincoln, he seems more intent on breaking out, mentally at least, from what Harry S. Truman once called the crown jewel of the American penal system.
Dubya, for instance, was particularly fond of the biography, reading some 14 books on Lincoln while he was in office. But the current president has more of a literary taste, not surprising in a man who first came to national attention for his facility with the written and spoken word.
Here’s some of what Obama’s been reading of late:
Just in time for readers everywhere to get ideas for gift-giving and to also realize exactly how few new books they have gotten to in the past year, The New York Times just released its annual 100 Notable Books list. It’s a daunting list, to be sure, and not always entirely justified—Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is somewhat inexcusably not on the list, while Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs takes up a not entirely necessary slot—but here’s a few of their selections that look best suited for catching up on in the long cold month of January:
All That Is - by James Salter. (Knopf, $26.95.) Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years, which follows the loves and losses of a World War II veteran, is an ambitious departure from his previous work and, at a stroke, demolishes any talk of twilight.
Duplex - By Kathryn Davis. (Graywolf, $24.) A schoolteacher takes an unusual lover in this astonishing, double-hinged novel set in a fantastical suburbia.
Empress Dowagar Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China – by Jung Chang. (Knopf, $30.) Chang portrays Cixi as a proto-feminist and reformer in this authoritative account.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking – by Brendan I. Koerner. (Crown, $26.) Refusing to make ’60s avatars of the unlikely couple behind a 1972 skyjacking, Koerner finds a deeper truth about the nature of extremism.
I’ll be contributing as usual to the Best Of Books features at PopMatters, which should run towards the end of the year.
Princeton professor, literary critic, and feminist theorist Elaine Showalter has written and opined on everything from how to teach literature to the psychological basis of modern hysterias. She was also, as a member of the Modern Language Association, a skirmisher in those not-at-all-missed culture wars of the early-1990s when the MLA pushed back against charges that the National Humanities Council was using conservative ideology to vet grant applications. The NEH’s chair? Lynne Cheney, wife to the former vice president and mother of the two battling Cheney sisters.
So it came to Showalter’s surprise back then that such an ideologue like Lynne Cheney had, in her earlier incarnation as a pulp novelist, published a novel about battling sisters that could actually be considered … feminist. Showalter wrote in the New Republic about the dissonance between anti-feminist scourge Lynne Cheney and the Lynne Cheney who had a PhD in English and wrote a trashy novel about strong women working together.
…I thought it was ultimately a metaphor for the profound differences between women, and the impossibility of achieving total sisterhood. But Cheney sees empathetic identification as the essence of sisterly behavior. “The hardest thing any human being can do,” a woman in the novel declares, “is fully to acknowledge the actuality of another. To admit, truly admit, that their thoughts, cares, their ardors and aversions, are—or were—as real as our own.” When Sophie understands this idea, she realizes that she and Helen were not so different after all. If Liz and Mary Cheney read Sisters as they were running towards the future, I hope they remembered these lines. If these two professional, Republican, married-with-children twigs on the Cheney family tree can’t get along, who can?
Once, Thomas Pynchon cameo’d on ‘The Simpsons.’ Or did he?
So here’s who didn’t show at Wednesday night’s National Book Awards dinner at Cipriani in Manhattan: Thomas Pynchon. Never mind that his Bleeding Edge was one of the finalists for fiction, the man just doesn’t do award ceremonies. Or interviews. Or much of anything, besides you know, living and writing.
James McBride (The Color of Water) took the fiction prize in an upset win for his Good Lord Bird and George Packer very deservedly won for The Unwinding (my review is here).
Here’s the full list of finalists:
- Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
- Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
- James McBride, The Good Lord Bird
- Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
- George Saunders, Tenth of December
Also at the dinner was E.L. Doctorow, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (nice title, that). According to the Times, Doctorow gave the evening a resolutely analog spin:
[Doctorow] cooled the mood down with a somber speech on technology, government surveillance and the Internet. (Somewhat uncomfortably, Amazon.com and Google were sponsors of the event.)
“Text is now a verb,” Mr. Doctorow said. “More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.”
The morning of November 22, 1963, JFK told Jackie, “We’re heading into nut country today”
Leading up to today’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, dozens more books have been written on the killing itself as well as his legacy. This adds to the whole bookstore’s worth of titles already out there. Incredibly, there are still new and worthwhile takes to be found. Dallas 1963 is a case in point. Tackling neither the assassination theories that have sprouted hydra-like in the last half-century or the Jackie-burnished legend of Camelot, it focuses on one thing only: the virulent right-wing hatred waiting for JFK that day in Dallas.
My review of Dallas 1963 ran in today’s Barnes & Noble Review; here’s part:
A well-spoken Democratic president whose background and ethnicity raised reactionary suspicions. A new government health care plan denounced as anti-American social engineering. Accusations of treason and talk of insurrection. Militia-like groups recruiting members. A powerful media machine waging all-out warfare on the president and his allies. In Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’s electric, frightening urban political history Dallas 1963, the authors don’t need to draw parallels between the conservative panic that erupted during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and the fears currently inflaming the far right wing. It’s all right there on the page…
There’s an excerpt from Dallas 1963 at NPR here.
James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1920
Sylvia Beach was one of those fantastic Lost Generation figures who worked diligently in the spaces between literary figures like Hemingway and Fitzgerald but doesn’t get remembered nearly as often. Likely that’s because booksellers —she ran Paris’ famous Left Band expat hangout Shakespeare and Company—never quite get the same attention that book authors do.
Beach was also a smart businesswoman. Trying to drum up some sales for in James Joyce’s forthcoming Ulysses, she wrote to George Bernard Shaw in 1921, asking whether he as a fellow Irishman, would be interested in pre-ordering a copy. Shaw’s negative response was swift, definite, and for the ages:
To you possibly [Ulysses] may appeal as art … but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it….
I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for such a book, you little know my countrymen.
(Hat-tip: Steve King)
Saorise Ronan lost in the war zone in ‘How I Live Now’
Meg Rosoff’s phenomenally successful young-adult novel How I Live Now follows a spoiled punkette American teen who is sent off to her British relatives’ farm for the summer just as, unbeknownst to her, war is breaking out. Saorise Ronan stars in this punchy adaptation by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) that doesn’t quite hold together but is more than able to hold one’s attention.
How I Live Now is playing in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:
In most stories about groups fighting for survival, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) would be among the first to die. When the eye-rolling New York teen shows up at her step-cousins’ house in the English countryside for an undesired summer holiday, she works overtime at alienating everyone. She’s a germophobe who doesn’t consume wheat or dairy and is annoyed at being asked to do anything but put her headphones on and curl into a self-excoriating ball of black neurosis. In other words, the worst person to be stuck with in a ramshackle bohemian house where the dishes don’t get done often. Also, not somebody you would want to have to try and survive World War III with…
You can watch the trailer here:
There’s an excerpt from the novel here.
S.J. Perelman specialized in a particularly adroit style of urbane humor, which he deployed for decades at the New Yorker and in the occasional Marx Brothers script (the latter of which earns him automatic inclusion in any writers’ Hall of Fame).
He also had some salient advice for writers, not necessarily about the act of writing itself, but what writers had to look forward to in their choice of such a “shabby-genteel” career:
My vocation, it may have leaked out to you, is that of a writer, which means that I sit in a hot little room stringing words together like beads at so many cents per bead. It’s shabby-genteel work and, on the whole, poorly paid, but I’m too fragile to drive a brewery truck and I’m too nervous to steal … In the poolrooms I frequent, it has often reached my ears that the chief advantage of being a writer is that it allows you to sleep late in the morning. Don’t believe it. You can enjoy the same privilege as a night counterman in a cafeteria, and, what’s more, in that job you can always bring home stale Danish pastries for the kiddies…
That comes courtesy of a book called In My Opinion: The Seventeen Book of Very Important Persons. Apparently back in 1966, Seventeen magazine had an advice column frequented by the likes of Perelman, Philip Roth, Pete Seeger, and Joan Crawford (?!). Maybe teenagers read back then.
(H/T: Embarrassing Treasures)
Is it possible that to learn how to write something grand you should also practice penning something so abominably wretched it should never see the light of day? Probably not, the art of writing probably comes down to something as dreary as trying every single day to hone your craft to a sharp, chisel-like point.
So, if you were going to attempt to write horrendous prose, there’s really no other reason to do it except for a giggle. Because, after all, as more than one person has noted, somebody already wrote 50 Shades of Grey. So anything you do will be at best, second-worst writing ever.
Herewith one of the many preternaturally horrible opening lines culled from submissions to the Bulwer-Lytton Prize:
When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday, his children packed his bags and drove him to Golden Pastures retirement complex just off Interstate 95.
It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.
And, a personal favorite:
The professor looked down at his new young lover, who rested fitfully, lashed as she was with duct tape to the side of his stolen hovercraft, her head lolling gently in the breeze, and as they soared over the buildings of downtown St. Paul to his secret lair he mused that she was much like a sweet ripe juicy peach, except for her not being a fuzzy three-inch sphere produced by a tree with pink blossoms and that she had internal organs and could talk.
It’s that time of year when attentions get torn between the World Series and the ever-growing all-encompassing athletic-entertainment complex that is football. Being that the latter has almost definitely overtaken the former as America’s game, there’s no end to commentary and opinion about the gridiron spectacle.
One of the month’s more intriguing notes on football, though, comes from an unexpected source: Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. Here’s a short excerpt (noted by James Wood in the New Yorker) in which the narrator is talking about the ritual of watching Sunday football games out in Las Vegas:
On game day, until five o’clock or so, the white desert light held off the essential Sunday gloom — autumn sinking into winter, loneliness of October dusk with school the next day — but there was always a long still moment toward the end of those football afternoons where the mood of the crowd turned and everything grew desolate and uncertain, onscreen and off, the sheet-metal glare off the patio glass fading to gold and then gray, long shadow and night falling into desert stillness, a sadness I couldn’t shake off, a sense of silent people filing toward the stadium exits and cold rain falling in college towns back east…
Never mind that college games happen on Saturday for the most part; you still have here a beautifully gloomy little snapshot of that autumnal bleakness that always seems to hover around the game.