Book Digest: October 9, 2006

Cable News Confidential; The War of the World; The One From the Other; Reading Like a Writer; What Is the What; An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories; The Blind Side

There was a point at which I experienced great vexation that the steady drumbeat of eyewitness reportage contained by the books of Jon Lee Anderson, George Packer, Thomas Ricks, and Seymour Hersh seemed to have little or no effect on the body politic. Along comes Bob “Which Way is the Wind Blowing?” Woodward and his book, State of Denial, on the dismal conduct and disinformation connected with the Iraq incursion, and it’s news. That’s bad news, and even worse is that, seemingly caught red-handed in the various states of ineptness and disarray, the Bush regime continues operating on the principle most recently recapped in Frank Rich’s genius book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, when Rich recaps Ron Suskind’s conversation with a presidential aide just before the 2004 election:
…a judicious study of discernible reality is not the way the world really works any more. We are an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re [journalists and the reality based community] studying that reality—judiciously, as you will, we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how, things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
This state of affairs prompts me to again recall an incisive observation by a South African journalist, “A patriot is someone who saves his country from its government.” Know anyone who fits that bill? Our ruling classes and their mandarin lackeys which, includes corporate media, do not.

Which leads me to consider another of Mark Twain’s acute observations:
Citizenship should be placed above everything else, even learning. Is there in any college of the land a chair of citizenship where good citizenship and all that it implies is taught? There is not one—that is, not one where sane citizenship is taught. There are some which teach insane citizenship, bastard citizenship, but that is all. Patriotism! Yes; but patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest.
Know how to spell i-m-p-e-a-c-h-m-e-n-t?

Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media by Jeff Cohen
Depending on your politics, left-wing looney or shrewd progressive activist Jim Hightower ruminates in this book’s foreword: “Those of us who bemoan the corporate takeover of TV and radio cannot drown our sorrows in a glass of whine. Don’t agonize—organize. First, we must recognize that we’ve been here before. Periodically in America’s history, the media barons of the day have ignored or trivialized vital democratic movements—but the people fought back.”

Jeff Cohen, whose bona fides include having worked at all three major cable channels—Fox, CNN, and MSNBC—went on to found the well-regarded media watchdog group FAIR and has written something of a tell-all about the gruesome business of cable news. And a well-argued indictment of said cable networks’ failure to deliver serious coverage of the pressing concerns of the day. Here’s Cohen in a clip of a conversation with Alternet’s Don Hazen:
Keep in mind that we would have had bigger success faster [at MSNBC] if they hadn’t put the straitjacket on us. When these independent media and blogs are booming and MoveOn is doubling or tripling its membership, and we’re stagnating because they’re encouraging us to imitate Fox, remember that we would have gone much bigger much faster than Olbermann in ratings. But ratings were less important to MSNBC than acting on their timidity and fear of our content.

By the last months of the show, MSNBC management was ordering us that every time we booked a guest who was anti-war, we had to book two that were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left we had to book three on the right. When a producer in a full staff meeting said that she was thinking about booking Michael Moore as a guest, she was told that she’d need three right-wingers for ideological balance.
Not that we didn’t know any of this bad news.

The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West by Niall Ferguson
British historian Niall Ferguson, who has assumed Simon Schama’s role as this moment’s glamorous serious historian (one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2003), uses his latest book to address what he offers as the modern era’s central paradox: “Why unprecedented progress coincided with unprecedented violence and why the seeming triumph of the West bore the seeds of its undoing.” The short, oversimplified course is that the West’s decline is connected to its loss of dominance over Asia.

The One From the Other by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr was included in one of those Granta “Best Authors under 40” lists, based no doubt on his much-admired noir Berlin Trilogy and maybe on my favorite of his works, A Philosophical Investigation, a speculative fiction thriller. I have read pretty much everything he has written—most recently Dark Matter, a 17th-century whodunnit with Sir Isaac Newton at center stage, and Hitler’s Peace, a clever World War II what-if. In The One From the Other, Kerr reprises Bernie Gunther from the above-mentioned noir trilogy, setting the story in 1949 post-war Germany, except Gunther has moved on to a less-dangerous Munich.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
Francine Prose offers the simple and obvious observation that long before there were creative-writing workshops and degrees, aspiring writers learned to write by reading. So in what is a guided tour of Western literature, Prose, who it must be said is a wonderful writer with an inviting oeuvre, provides a list of must-reads, some obvious and some not—Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov, Philip Roth, Isaac Babel, George Eliot, John le Carré, Flannery O’Connor—as reasons for her imperatives.

» Read an excerpt from Reading Like a Writer

What Is the What by Dave Eggers
Recently I wrote a review of a debut novel by Joan Frank that I discovered in the back seat of my car—and knowing nothing about Frank, it caused me to revisit the occasional literary discussion of whether books ought to be published without any information about or pictures of the authors—the text being the main thing, right? I bring this up in the instance of a new novel by Dave Eggers, as he is a contemporary writer who manages to raise hackles and ire far beyond any relevance and connection with his own writing. In any case, Eggers is offering his third book via the McSweeney’s imprint (which essentially makes it a self-published project), and it is a story about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng, based on actual experiences. Whatever proceeds from the novel will be earmarked for the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, a conduit for aid to Sudanese refugees in America and to rebuilding projects in Sudan, and not least for a college education for Deng.

Here is Valentino Achak Deng from the preface:
As you read this book you will learn about the two and a half million people who have perished in Sudan’s civil war. I was just a boy when the war began. As a helpless human I survived by trekking across many punishing landscapes while being bombed by the Sudanese air forces, while dodging land mines while being preyed upon by wild beast and human killers. I fed upon unknown fruits, vegetables, animal carcasses and sometimes went with nothing for days At certain points the difficulty was unbearable. I hated myself and attempted to take my own life. Many of my friends and thousands of my fellow country men did not make it through these struggles alive…
Nigerian born author Uzodinma Iweala comments, “Dave Eggers has done something remarkable with this book. He has managed to cross many barriers both real and artificial to tell the story of one man’s tragedy and triumph in a way that emphasizes his simple humanity above the drama of his terrible situation. It is a book that shows there is no reason why geographical and cultural divides should prevent us from attempting to understand each other as citizens of this world.”

I take it to be a good thing that there seems to be a boomlet of books set in the beknighted African continent—Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, Aminatta Forna’s Ancestor Stones, Russell Banks’s The Darling, John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, and Chris Abani’s Graceland, among others.

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories edited by Ivan Brunetti
This is a best-of anthology of contemporary art comics and classic comic strips by Ivan Brunetti (creator of Schizo, whom one Chip Kidd introduced me to). It includes 305 images from such well-known artists as Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Charles Burns, Gary Panter, Seth, Phoebe Gloeckner, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco, and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Brunetti eschews any formal criterion for inclusion by simply going where his personal tastes took him. Also, it should not go unsaid that Yale University Press is quite hip in its attention to contemporary graphic literature (see last week’s Digest on Tod Hignite’s invaluable In the Studio) and in fact produced the first monograph on Chip Kidd.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
For my taste, Michael Lewis functions as a nonfiction version of Elmore Leonard—meaning I read everything that both of them write. Based on my two conversations with Michael Lewis, I am of the opinion that he is one of the best or maybe one of the luckiest journalists working. Lewis was producing fine and readable books before Moneyball, which found an audience beyond a baseball core, and his elegiac Coach, an homage to his high school baseball coach, but his new opus, The Blind Side—which he readily confesses he was lucky to come across—is the amazing story of Michael Oher, one of 13 children born to a mother addicted to crack who does not know his real name, his father, his birthday, or much of anything. This young behemoth (6’5” and 330 pounds) is adopted by a rich, Evangelical, Republican family and becomes one of the most highly recruited high school football players in the country. (He’s currently at Ole Miss and slated to be a high first-round NFL draft choice.) Janet Maslin takes the words out of my mouth:
Michael Lewis has such a gift for storytelling that it can be dangerous to his nonfiction. He is so much fun to read that he can appear to be shaping an entertaining narrative by sandpapering reality’s rough edges. The real-life fable that is “The Blind Side” tells how a mountainous, destitute black teenager miraculously morphs into an Ole Miss football hero and becomes a member of a wealthy white evangelical family. Its dialogue is sharp and its anecdotes well chosen. Its aim for both the heartstrings and the funny bone is right on the mark…
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