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.
Rumsfeld: ‘The only things that are lasting are conflict, blackmail, and killing.’
Errol Morris’ riveting new documentary is a feature-length interview with none other than the Bush era’s greatest poetic dissembler, Donald Rumsfeld. The Unknown Known has been playing festival dates recently and is going to hit theaters on December 13.
My early review is at Short Ends & Leader:
In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Morris’s documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come…
Here’s a look at the trailer:
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?
In the new documentary Narco Cultura, photographer and journalist Saul Schwarz looks at how the popular narcocorrido music scene revels in and glorifies the splashy lifestyle and ultraviolence of Mexican drug cartels.
My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:
Schwarz splits his murder ballad of a film into two narratives. One is his splashy on-the-road story about Buknas de Culiacan, one of the star bands of the Los Angeles narcocorrido scene, and its leader, Edgar Quintero. A bright-eyed entrepreneurial spirit, Quintero goes beyond just telling stories about the cartel wars taking place just over the border. He happily takes requests directly from the narcos themselves, who are obsessive followers of the scene and eager to get a popular song to burnish their rep. When the crowd sings along to Buknas’ songs, the artistic distance between singer and subject seems practically to disappear…
You can see the trailer here:
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.”
It depends what you mean by ‘happy’
What’s the best way to make a documentary about a philosopher? Sit down and talk to him. Better yet, if you’re Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) chatting with Noam Chomsky about life, the universe, and everything, animate the whole thing.
Is the Tall Man Happy? is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:
[Michel] Gondry’s lovably sincere and chatty Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? starts by telling how he came across [Noam] Chomsky after seeing films on him, like the epic 1992 dissertation on his media critique, Manufacturing Consent. At first, it seems like Gondry is going to overplay the worshipful naïf card in his narration, interrupting himself, acting nervous, and highlighting being out of his depth: “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here.” But Gondry’s natural charisma takes hold of the conversation. Instead of trying to boil down Chomsky’s dense linguistic and political viewpoints, Gondry and he simply talk philosophy…
You can watch the superb trailer here: