January 2008 Archives

The (single) reader of book/daddy and even those senior citizens who can recall my book columns for The Dallas Morning News will remember that I have argued for the viability of a book show. Commercial broadcast TV and cable TV do not seem eager to recognize the simple genius of my proposal (or at least my non-presence at the Four Seasons in New York for power lunches with them), so I figure a do-it-yourself webcam show, sort of a bookish Jon Stewart-Meets-YouTube, might work.

Right. I'll get around to producing it as soon as I'm done getting my daughter into college. And graduated. With a job.

But now, former Random House editor-in-chief and former New Yorker editor Daniel Menaker -- a man who surely has been to the Four Seasons a few times -- has teamed up with a pair of documentary filmmakers to develop Titlepage, which will begin streaming online March 3. Here's hoping it works.

The program sounds, though, as if it'll just be The Charlie Rose Show with more people around the table droning about books and the authors they personally know. That'll be, um, exciting. And a historic break from all other book programming. Mercifully for him, this means Mr. Menaker is safe from the wrath of my copyright lawyers. The essence of my pitch remains: Cut some of the fake news stuff at the beginning of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert but keep the amusing interviews. Have fun with it. Ditch the ponderous Rose stuff. Hey, Dick Cavett did it. And Stewart and Colbert have been offering more author interviews than almost any other televised outlets in America.

One iteration of my plan can be found here -- scroll to the end of the interview.

January 30, 2008 3:08 PM |

book/daddy's happy-happy essay on a number of new books about Anti-depressant America and the backlash against Prozac appears in Salon.com. I figured the essay would spark some talk. It seems a reasonable argument to make (to me), but with enough components to it that people were bound to misread things or have causes to advance and personal stories to recount: Anti-depressants are overprescribed (thanks in part to Big Pharma), sadness is often a normal response to life, yet depression can be a real illness and drug therapy can be an effective means of countering it (when handled properly).

But upon re-reading the essay -- in light of the anger of anti-depressant users responding to it -- I can see how it seems imbalanced, mostly taking shots at what is the current reign of psychopharmacology (although anti-depressant users still feel that they still are a stigmatized group). There are individual lines, of course, where I declare that depression (when serious) operates like a disease, is a serious problem, depressives need medical care, counseling with drug therapy is one of the most successful treatments. But the general tone of the argument leans in the other direction, against the use of pills.

Neverthless, book/daddy hadn't expected the comments to ratchet up quite like this. Many posters have forgotten the original review entirely and are off settling old scores with each other.

Last count: 260 comments posted and still climbing.

January 29, 2008 6:07 AM |

Cover of EC

  • In the February/March issue, the late, great Texas writer, Donald Barthelme receives an excellent appreciation by James Wolcott (whom book/daddy often finds irritatingly self-important, but when he's on a roll, he can do some fine horn-tooting). The hallowed occasion: With Flying to America: 45 More Stories, all of Don B's short works finally seem to be in print.

  • Also in Bookforum, an excerpt from David Hajdu's book, The 10-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. The book won't be out until March, but I can say, halfway through it, that it's a terrific cultural history.

    Initially, book/daddy thought, who needed another recounting of Dr. Frederick Wertham's fearmongering with his infamous 1954 diatribe, The Seduction of the Innocent? The book linked comics to juvenile delinquency and just about anything else wrong with teens, including acne and bad posture. Read any history of comics, and you'll find the story repeated; it's the McCarthyite Red Scare of the superhero world. It nearly killed the industry. But Hajdu has found a much wider, more interesting tale -- practically the entire history of comics is tied up with attempted censorhip -- and with some truly eccentric characters along the way.

  • Richard Locke has written a review of Pat Barker's new novel, Life Class, which includes an excellent overview of the Booker Prize-winning novelist's work. Professor Locke thinks the new book doesn't hold a candle to Barker's superb Regeneration trilogy. In my New York Sun review (see below), I don't think it's as good, but still well worth reading, a superb piece of fiction.

  • January 25, 2008 2:04 PM | | Comments (2)

    book/daddy is ripping out and replacing kitchen cabinetry this week. Our regular reader may recall the Great Water Heater Flood of '07 -- this woodwork is a further consequence of that and the subsequent, under-reported Flooring Crisis. At any rate, amid the flying splinters and nails, book/daddy sends his regrets for not posting more the past few days, but it is difficult to type while wielding a hammer and a prying bar. He begs your indulgence, noting that although he may not be the finest literary critic around, he's probably one of the very few the past year who has built a wood fence, installed a new intake vent for the A/C, ripped out a kitchen floor and done cabinetwork.

    I'd like to see just how well Louis Menand can handle a router. Or spackling. There's very little appreciation of spackling skills in literary circles. A serious oversight in theory and practice.

    January 24, 2008 5:34 PM |

    book/daddy's review of Pat Barker's fine new novel, Life Class appears today in The New York Sun and in my "Recommendations" column on the right. The Sun review features my analysis of why Barker isn't better known in the U.S., when her brilliant, Booker Prize-winning Regeneration trilogy is one of the finest fictional treatments of World War I.

    January 23, 2008 8:36 AM |


    January 22, 2008 12:54 PM |

    How it shines in hindsight. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Clinton impeachment -- an anniversary, as Phil Nugent points out -- the American media do not seem very eager to recall (except Joe Klein in his best, Politburo-airbrushing-the-past mode). We'll bring up Watergate whenever we can, but the press' performance during the latter part of the Clinton administration was utterly shameful.

    Funny, how those of us who cherish the idea of an evil conspiracy of liberals running the media never recall the coverage of Whitewater and Travelgate and the Foster "murder" and the cocaine planes landing in Little Rock ... and all the glories in the Starr Report, that august publication which found god-fearing Republicans eagerly printing up semen-stained porn in the name of the United States Congress.

    But then there's the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News, which recalls the Lewinsky affair with a degree of bittersweet fondness. The editors belittle the whole thing as a tempest in a teapot that really just hurt those nasty ol' Republicans who got a wee bit overexcited, even though none of the major Congressional players failed re-election. They point out how many of those involved (Bill, Hillary, Gore, Matt Drudge) are doing just fine these days, they manage to hang the whole thing around Hillary's neck and never once recall the reprehensible baying of the media pack.

    Who says the Golden Age of media punditry is dead?

    January 21, 2008 10:35 PM |

  • The print origins of Sweeney Todd lie in The String of Pearls: A Romance. It was an 18-part serialization first published in 1846 in one of the period's "penny bloods," its author unknown. Louise Welsh examines the historical evidence to answer the question: Was there ever a real razor-wielder behind the slasher legend?
  • Tired of self-pitying memoirs? Of tales of childhood degradation and deprivation? Julie Burchill in the Guardian blasts them all, and has some left-over nitro for anti-Americanism from the chi-chi French.
  • Cut the hooptedoodle: Elmore Leonard's rules of writing.
  • Philip Glass tells how it was living for a year with Moondog, the late eccentric composer-musician who stood on a New York street corner dressed as a Viking. His music can be an amazingly beautiful mix of jazz, classical music, minimalism and Frank Zappa-ish quirk, but he apparently wasn't the easiest houseguest:

    Though he spent a year with us, I gave him lots of privacy. Before he moved to Germany, it did become uncomfortable at times. It seemed that he felt entitled to grab hold of any woman he could. He told me: "I can't be prosecuted for rape because they can't do that to blind people." Another uncomfortable thing about living with Moondog was that he didn't pick up after himself, or know how or bother to throw out the trash, so I spent some time cleaning up the fast food he brought to his room.

    It's from the preface for the official biography, Moondog: The Viking of Sixth Avenue by Robert Scotto, which includes a 28-track CD.

  • In his Sunday sermon in The Dallas Morning News, Monsignor Rod Dreher says independents and Christian conservatives (and Andrew Sulllivan, although the good monsignor never names him) attracted to candidate Barack Obama are seriously mistaken. Obama's Christian faith seems to be of the "social" and "liberal" variety, not the more fearful and punitive one the monsignor prefers. What's worse, Obama is guilty by second-hand association with Black Muslims: Obama's pastor likes Louis Farakhan.
    Few people believe that GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul believes the racist, anti-Semitic things published anonymously in his newsletter. The problem was that Mr. Paul was not sufficiently alarmed by the poison-pen dispatches to distance himself from the creeps writing them. If Mr. Paul takes hits for the company he keeps, shouldn't Mr. Obama?

    Consider the holes in that dubious analogy for a moment. Obama not only denounced the Farakhan connection, he didn't oversee, publish and disseminate his pastor's ideas, with his name on them and in support of his own electoral prospects. And unlike Paul, he didn't take more than a decade to denounce them, after they became public embarrasments and were no longer politically useful.

    Inconveniently for the good monsignor, online conservatives such as Johan Wennstrom, research fellow of London's Institute of Economic Affairs, have indeed been intelligently articulating just why American and European conservatives should hail an Obama presidency:

    Obama's hopeful non-partisan tone appeals to those conservatives who have been disillusioned by the polarising George W Bush presidency. After eight years with a leadership that has deepened the political divide in America, they long for a president capable of rising above the standard ideological fray....

    The attraction of Obama to Sullivan and other conservatives is not surprising. In fact, their support is consistent with the constructive wing of the philosophy of conservatism. Those stuck in the world of divisional politics can be baffled by this. How, they ask, can people who admire Reagan and Thatcher also have time for Obama?

    Aside from his positive message of unity, there are a number of things concerning Obama which appeal to conservatives, not least his appreciative attitude towards traditions and his understanding of the importance of learning from history.

  • January 21, 2008 7:35 AM |
    January 18, 2008 8:00 AM |

    As something of a complement/contrast to Caleb Crain's disturbing New Yorker feature last month on the supposed demise of reading, Ursula K. LeGuin writes in the February Harper's (subscription required) that she wants "to question the assumption--whether gloomy or faintly gloating--that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?"

    Crain's New Yorker story takes the loooong view. Given our neural anatomy and given the history of literacy, it's remarkable that humans read at all. Only in the 19th century-early 20th century could it be said that reading became a 'general' activity. This puts the rise of a video/internet-dependent culture in a different, worrisomely inevitable context.

    As you might imagine, Crain's piece has been the talk of publishing the past month. Drawing from the current evidence he cites, Crain has an extremely gloomy take on the future: "More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability." And "No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again."

    LeGuin has a more immediate, inside-the-industry critique, and a familliar one: Much of the current crisis -- if we can call it that -- comes from corporate media taking over the literature-arts publishing houses, which have rarely made substantial profits, and then cranking them up into money machines. When they fail or balk, the industry starts blowing a gasket:

    To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn't "perform" within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off -- it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate....

    I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that.... But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature -- art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage ....

    So why don't the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don't they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most of the profits back into taking chances on new writers?

    January 17, 2008 2:17 PM |

    Every few months, some inspired lackwit writes a letter that The Dallas Morning News runs. The letter maintains that conservatives should not be tarred with the tiny brush of Hitler's moustache, that the Nazis were never conservatives. After all, the party's official name was the National Socialists. Get it? They were liberals.

    If the inspired lackwit knows a smidgen of economic history, he or she will support this claim further by pointing out that the Nazis and the Italian fascists operated state-controlled economies, which is what liberal socialists want. Ergo, liberals are the real Nazis.

    This "undistributed middle" seems to be the basis of Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism, which comes with a truly marvelous sub-title, The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, marvelous in that dozens of people must have read it at Doubleday before it saw print (in fact, Goldberg re-worked the title while writing the book, clearly he took some care with it). Yet the liberal media conspiracy (for once!) proved to be so disciplined at Doubleday (everyone gets medals and welfare checks tomorrow!) that no one broke out laughing. Everyone kept working, kept a straight face when saying "Yes, Mr. Goldberg, that sub-title will sell!" while stifling giggles, knowing that Goldberg's attempt to win some big-think, pundit street cred would crater when book buyers would hold the book in their hands and wonder, "When the hell did Mussolini become American?"

    Over the holidays, while

    January 15, 2008 7:29 PM |

    For book lovers who are fascinated by the intricacies of gold leaf and vellum as well as the modern forensic techniques that allow experts to restore these precious, old manuscripts, Geraldine Brooks' new novel, People of the Book, is like CSI: The Rare Book Version.

    A vivid trip through the splendors of early bookmaking, People of the Book is a suspenseful yarn about Jewish history. It's based on the real Sarajevo Haggadah, the Hebrew holy book that was made in Barcelona around 1350. It escaped the Spanish Inquisition, endured the Nazi occupation of Europe and miraculously survived the Serbian assault on Sarajevo 10 years ago. The Haggadah is incredibly rare because it's a sumptuously illustrated manuscript from a time when many Jews believed any images were against God's law.

    But - and this is crucial - beneath the novel's surface of intrigue and artistry, it's really quite simple and sentimental. People of the Book is not much more emotionally complex than Nancy Drew and the Mysterious Manuscript.

    January 15, 2008 9:23 AM | | Comments (1)

    From Luc Sante (a.k.a Pinakothek, a.k.a., All-Seeing Eye, Jr., and author of Low Life), courtesy of Hermeneutic Circle:

    I Was a Spy (1933). I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936). I Was a Convict (1939). I Was an Adventuress (1940). I Was a Prisoner on Devil's Island (1941). I Was a Criminal (1945). I Was a Male War Bride (1949). I Was a Shoplifter (1950). I Was an American Spy (1951). I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). I Was a Burlesque Queen (1953).I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). I Was a Teenage Rumpot [book/daddy's personal favorite among the titles, followed by:] (1960). I Was a Teenage Mummy (1962).

    The personal-confession genre in American popular journalism was largely the creation of Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955), the physical-fitness guru and pulp baron who founded publications ranging from Physical Culture to True Detective and the ineffable New York Evening Graphic.

    The post is particularly amusing for Sante's deconstruction of the sub-Weegee-ish jacket photo for the ripped-from-the-headlines shocker, I Was a House Detective.

    January 14, 2008 9:18 AM |

    Lovely appreciation by Phil Nugent on the 50-year anniversary of Nat Hentoff's tenure at the Village Voice: what went wrong with the paper (even before New Media absolutely ruined it) and what has been consistently remarkable about Hentoff over the years.

    January 14, 2008 8:58 AM |

  • The Guardian picks the World's 10 Best Bookshops. They're really the world's most striking or even beautiful bookstores, as witness the amazing Livraria Lello in Portugal (above). The only American bookseller included is the Secret Headquarters comic book store in L.A. It must be quite the place because a) its website is irritating (it's designed as a secret dossier) and b) Jim Hanley's Universe in New York is the best comics shop that book/daddy has seen, although it (like Titan Comics here in Dallas) is a bit utilitarian looking. Terrific stock, though. Hence, the argument that this list is about decor as much as inventory. But it's worth it just to see the 360-degree view of Livraria Lello or the old theater-turned-bookstore in Buenos Aires. Gorgeous: If anything remotely like these vendors were in Texas, book/daddy would simply move and live inside them.

  • The inspiration for many of P. G. Wodehouse's characters have been tracked down. They're not just delightfully silly fantasies; it takes two volumes to document them, plus Wodehouse's many classical references.

  • The Apocalypse is truly at hand, although he'd never admit it. Christopher Hitchens has quit smoking.

  • "A young woman's path to damnation": Benjamin Markovitz' new novel (not yet available in the US) re-tells Bryon's life from the viewpoint of his estranged wife, Anabella, the famous "Princess of Parallelograms." Meanwhile, Andrea di Robilant uses her family archives once again (she wrote A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century) to write about her great-great-great-great-grandmother -- who was Byron's landlady.

  • That old cliche -- the greatest author in the world is named "Anonymous" -- gains renewed force when one considers just a brief list of some of the writers who hid their names: William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Andrew Marvell, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Walter Scott. And that's just British writers, let's not forget the Iron Curtain countries. John Mullan's new book, Anonymity, examines the many reasons that have caused writers to write both publicly and secretly.

  • "You can find in it all the ammunition you need to confound those who think of the theatre as a poor substitute for cinema, or as entertainment for toffs only, or as a backward-looking medium" -- Francis Beckett writing about Robert Tanitch's new history, London Stage in the 20th Century (not available in the US until November).

  • January 12, 2008 10:29 PM |

    The fact that my only post this week is listed as a Monday round-up betrays a certain lack of productivity, don't you think? On the other hand, I had two job interviews, a review deadline, plus an overhaul of a leaky shower.

    I know. There's no excuse. So let me make it up to you by putting up a colorful new portrait. If there's one thing I've learned as a media professional it's that decorative self-promotion can disguise any lack of substance.

    January 11, 2008 9:55 PM |

  • The cultural elite -- the one that supposedly deems anything less than opera to be so much pop junk -- does not exist, say British researchers. Try "cultural omnivore," instead, although it's not nearly as satisfying an insult.

  • Ana Kothe in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture makes a case for Jon Stewart as a fake news anchor still providing real news ("By donning the fool's cap, by playing the clown, Stewart as a fake news anchor is able to proclaim nonofficial truths."). One problem with her general argument: When discussing the current state of the news media, she makes the same mistake many academics (and admittedly, many ordinary viewers) do. She refers to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly as "serious news reporters," as if they're Brian Williams or a Wall Street Journal correspondent. They're not; they're commentators; just as the liberal Al Franken and Keith Olbermann are.

  • A century later, and we're still arguing about it: Whatever happened to Cubism?

  • Two thousand years later, and we're still arguing about it. What, exactly, was Greek love? According to James Davidson's new book, The Greeks and Greek Love, it wasn't about molesting young boys. Greek laws forbade underage sex just as much as ours do.

  • Twenty years later, Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, returns to the scene of the crime. Mostly, he sees confirmation of his argument. Public intellectuals are gone or mostly unheard. They prefer talking to each other in academia. And on blogs? Who reads them?

    But now, there's Big Think. It's supposed to be the "YouTube for Ideas." And there's still Stanley Fish, justifying the humanities in the face of people who write that "when a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company," then he'll deserve attention from the New York State Commission on Higher Education, not before.

  • January 6, 2008 5:02 PM | | Comments (1)

    George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the series of "Flashman" adventure spoofs, has died. He was 82. Flashman was the name of the chicken-hearted bully in Tom Brown's Schooldays, the old Victorian moralizing classic, and Fraser had the wonderfully subversive idea of writing about him, putting him in other classics, such as The Prisoner of Zenda, and throwing in real-life conspiracies and characters, including Otto von Bismarck and Lola Montesz. The "Flashman" books were delightful demonstrations that cowardice, swaggering bluster, good looks, thuggish racism, shameless skirt-chasing, high-born connections and a tremendous capacity for booze will succeed where honesty and hard work would only get you killed.

    In short, Fraser revealed the real secret of the British Empire's success. The fact that he served as a lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders in the Middle East only shows that he knew what he was writing about.

    If you never read a single one of Fraser's dozens of books, you still owe him a debt of gratitude: He wrote the romping screenplay for Richard Lester's brilliant 1973 adaptation of The Three Musketeers with Oliver Reed, Michael York and Faye Dunaway.

    January 4, 2008 7:44 AM |

    It's estimated that Henry James wrote an astonishing 40,000 letters in his lifetime, many of them lost, many still in private hands, many unpublished. Just the letters that editors know about will eventually require 140 volumes to print, and in toto, they may comprise one of the greatest literary epistolary efforts -- particularly the youthful, uncharacteristically funny, lively and even patriotic missives. (To his father on the elderly Pope Pius IX: 'When the Pope, clad in shining robes crept up to the altar & in the midst of that dazzling shrine of light, possessed himself of the Host & raised it aloft over the prostrate multitudes, I got a very good look at him by poking up my head & confronting that terrible toy.') Colm Toibin explains the history of the letters and how James became James -- on the publication of The Complete Letters of Henry James, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

    January 3, 2008 11:41 AM |


    January 2, 2008 10:10 AM |

    The New Orleans Times-Picayune has done some smart, heroic things in recent years, notably continuing to report and publish in the teeth of Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday's announcement that the newspaper will actually expand and amplify its books coverage doesn't match that particularly gutsy decision, but, considering how many newspapers outside of New York -- notably the Dallas Morning News -- have seriously cut back on staff or space in books and arts coverage in deference to Wall Street pressures, it's inspiring to read the editors' reasoning on this, the first day of the New Year:

    In addition to our stable of reviews and features on the local literary scene, look for new features devoted to book clubs and reading groups, literary movers and shakers, and expanded bestseller lists.

    Our expanded books coverage is built on a belief that a great many of our readers have a rich and varied reading life, beyond the newspaper. and while some national statistics seem to suggest that reading is on the decline, others make a different case.

    According to U.S. Census figures, total book sales in 2006, not counting school textbooks, exceeded $16 billion. That's more than the $12.5 billion in sales of hardware and software for video games.

    January 1, 2008 10:27 AM |


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