book/daddy: October 2007 Archives

book/daddy's review of Caryl Phillips' new book, Foreigners, appears today in the New York Sun.

October 31, 2007 7:13 AM |

This Saturday at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, book/daddy will be moderating a panel on literary criticism (the online festival schedule is here). Specifically, the panel is "LitCrit: The State of Book Reviewing," a topic that is sure to draw two or three spouses and maybe a janitor, especially when it's up against George Saunders (humorous author of The Braindead Megaphone), New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross (author of the terrific The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century), actress Marlee Matlin, The Onion Presents: Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth and, of course, You Can Learn Magic, with the Kent Cummins Magic Camp Magicians!

In our defense, book/daddy must confess that a panel on the troubles in book reviewing was his idea -- almost a year ago, I pitched it to Clay Smith, the director of the festival. This was long before the dismissal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's books editor, before the cutbacks at the LA Times and elsewhere, before the uproar in litblogs, before the National Book Critics Circle's "save the endangered book page" campaign, and before everyone else and his cousin had presented a panel on the same topic.

Our panel will just be better than everyone else's. So there.

In our favor, we will have Alan Cheuse of NPR fame, Jessa Crispin, the Bookslut, the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Winner Steven Kellman (that's the highest prize a book critic can win, next to a Pulitzer) and Bloomberg News columnist, former Publishers Weekly editor and all-round nice guy Ed Nawotka.

See you there.

October 29, 2007 11:06 AM |

Fun with numbers! Stephen Berlin Johnson, author of The Ghost Map, has discovered the Fog Index. Or actually, he's discovered Amazon's Text Stats feature, part of the 'Zone's "Inside this Book" search engine. For select books, you can check out numerical aspects of an author's writing, such as the average length of his sentences or the average complexity of the words he uses (a "complex word," in this case, is defined as anything longer than three syllables).

Many newspaper journalists will instantly recognize these as the factors used in the infamous "Fog Index," developed by Robert Gunning as a scientific-seeming gauge of "readability," but in reality, a dread instrument of torture used by editors and writing coaches to intimidate reporters and columnists into writing very ... very ... simple ... prose. The simplest prose is the clearest prose, you understand. And the simplest prose is the most readable. And the more readable your prose, the more readers can read it. Maybe even will read it. And teenagers will flock to the paper and advertisers will return and all manner of things will be well once more.

In fact, the first thing listed on the 'Zone's Text Stats charts -- before all the breakdowns of a book's total number of words and sentences -- are the three "readability" indices (the Fog Index, the Flesch Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Index). The figures in these three relate to the supposed grade school level or percentage grade which a reader would need to have attained in order to keep up with the author's shimmering prose. Book/daddy's Fog Index while working at The Dallas Morning News was generally around 9th grade, sometimes dipping to 8th grade -- which was considered acceptable. They liked to keep things accessible to people without a high school education. No wonder more serious readers have given up and fled to the internet.

Indeed, although editors and writing coaches will deny it, one possible result of a wholesale and heavy-handed use of the Fog Index, I would argue, is a dumbing down of a coerced journalist's writing. Coaches and editors insist that even the most sophisticated and abstruse of topics can be written about at, say, an 8th-grade level. And they probably can. Except it requires more space to do so. Breaking down a multi-tiered business merger or a breakthrough in quantum physics into simple sentences with simple words that even partial literates might understand will generally require more sentences to cover the topic. Or less of the topic will get covered -- because space, like management brainpower, is tight these days at daily papers.

But back to Mr. Johnson and his discoveries and The Calibrations of Literary Style.

October 23, 2007 4:22 PM |

book/daddy hasn't posted this week because a number of freelance jobs came up avec immediate deadlines and -- here's a first -- he gave a deposition for a lawsuit. Took a lot longer than either the lawyer or b/d thought it would.

October 23, 2007 12:41 PM |

.... turns out he was batshit. If going nuts and dying from a brain tumor counts.

And yes, that is the medical definition of "batshit."

October 18, 2007 3:49 PM |

You will recall book/daddy's dismissal of the Guardian's survey of Britwits (see "Lackwit" below, if your memory is so Newt Gingrich-like -- that is, short and faulty). The Independent did book/daddy one better, coming up with its own list of female Britwits because none had appeared in the Guardian's top 10. A much funnier list, on the whole, too.

book/daddy was familiar with Jane Austen, Mary Wortley Montagu, Virginia Woolf and Lady Astor. All of those conservatives who go into orgasms of admiration over Sir Winston never manage to mention that in insult exchanges, he was regularly topped by Lady Astor (an American, no less). When drily asked by him about what disguise he should wear to her costume ball, she replied, "Why don't you come sober, Mr. Prime Minister?"

But I confess I've not heard of quite a few of the others. New personal faves include Linda Smith ("She said of her home town, Erith: 'It's not twinned with anywhere but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham') and Joyce Grenfell (On history: "Progress today does seem to come so very heavily disguised as Chaos").

October 17, 2007 8:47 AM |

Scott McLemee, over at Quick Study, saw a new D.C. production of The Taming of the Shrew and had the response many intelligent viewers do: Trying to disguise the patriarchal abuse in the play wrenches it out of its historical context in order to appease modern sensibilities. Any amount of 'winking' about Kate's final speech of loving subservience to Petruchio does the play, and the audience, a disservice.

True, to an extent. book/daddy weighs in at length on the whole issue of how to play the Shrew I've seen so many of the damned things on stage, I ought to have some thoughts worth setting down.

October 16, 2007 10:21 PM |

With the exception of Stephen Fry, British wits mustn't be what they used to. The Guardian reports that a survey of 3,000 comedy fans on the greatest wits in history produced expected results (Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Spike Miligan) but also included, among the living, the Oasis bandleader, Liam Gallagher. Mr. Gallagher may well be a scintillating wisecracker but certainly not based on the lines quoted. This, for example, is his estimation of Victoria Beckham: "She can't even chew gum and walk in a straight line, let alone write a book." Compare this to LBJ's favorite description of an incompetent politician: "He couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel."

October 15, 2007 9:36 AM |

... it was surprising to learn something new from Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman's Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. The book is a very accessible account of traveling from the Earth to the Moon, as it were. It begins with the post-WWII scramble by the Russians and Americans for German scientists and their Peenemunde rocket technology, and it ends when the U. S. wins, in effect, by beating the Soviets to the moon. It's a popular history, so it's not meant to supplant the likes of Michael Neufeld's estimable biography Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War or an in-depth account of the initiating project in that cosmic conflict like Matthew Brezinzki's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age -- although, obviously, because the three book releases were timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary, they all, more or less, are competing in a Bookshelf Space Race.

Nonetheless, Epic Rivalry covers some fairly complex bases (Von Braun's willingness to accomodate different ideologies to fulfill his rocket dreams, for example, and our willingness to sugarcoat him for PR purposes), while managing to include details that keep the familiar territory vivid. The passing detail that I should have known -- if I'd given it much thought -- was that the fear and uproar that Sputniks I and II triggered in the West extended into a spiritual crisis. That is, a miltary-technological feat -- launching a 22-inch wide, 184-pound, polished sphere containing two radio transmitters followed by a later one that contained the dog Laika -- led the Democrats to accuse the Eisenhower administration of losing a battle more important than Pearl Harbor. The fearfulness and political opportunism are hardly surprising. But the two launches also led to a great many prominent spiritual leaders and intellectuals such as Bernard Baruch to denounce our shiny '50s materialism -- the golden age of traditional family values for many conservatives, mind you -- and call for a new regimen of hard work and renewal. America had lost, Time magazine declared, its myth of superiority. So paradoxically, both painful soul-searching and steely resolve were the order of the day.

It's hard not to see much the same panicked, anxious doubts following 9/11 -- in fact, the entire "Muslim terrorists hate us because of our freedoms and beliefs" is a direct echo of what was once said of the atheistical Reds, even though radical jihadists and the Soviet Central Committee couldn't be further apart. The other echo, of course, is the righteous call to reject our flabby liberal-consumerism and return to our extra-manly Judeo-Christian-warrior traditions, a call that we've been getting these days from the likes of this guy and this guy, despite the fact that they disagree fundamentally about Bush's War: Self-proclaimed crunchy conservative Rod Dreher initially was gung-ho for invading but has since repented. This has not caused any wavering in his desire to crush the great Islamic evil, however, while neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, when it comes to calling for war in the Middle East, has never recanted anything, including his consistently bad wardrobe choices.

I am not saying that Red technological advances weren't a real threat. Nor that a military-government response wasn't what was required, in either circumstance. It's that it seems this is what America always draws on when threatened from outside: a crisis mentality that casts into doubt hard-won consumer prosperity and democratic rewards (the cultural attributes we normally tout as signs of our special providence) while asserting a militant Christianity and renewed masculine vigor as the only things to save us.

This all came to me in a flash, while reading about the post-Sputnik turmoil in Epic Rivalry. What also came to me, when I picked up the next book to read, was that if one added a lot of trenchant, feminist analysis, you'd get something like Susan Faludi's latest, The Terror Dream

October 14, 2007 4:58 PM |

book/daddy's review of Cass Sunstein's newly revised version of his controversial book,, is now online at SFGate.

October 12, 2007 5:17 PM |

What an interesting question Phil Nugent poses: Why does President Bush keep saying, 'We don't torture'?

Despite the obvious reasons -- his future legal defense -- it's an odd statement because it's not like Nixon denying he was a crook or Clinton denying he'd had sex with that woman. Those were fig leafs for their supporters, escape hatches for the people who still wished to believe they'd elected someone who wouldn't lie or cheat.

But being the tough guy, being more than willing to kick those asses that supposedly need kicking -- that's President Bush's basic appeal to his diehard supporters. So why does he keep denying what is obvious to everyone else, what is clearly happening under his orders and what is plainly the reason many people admire someone like him -- or someone like Rudy Giuliani? What's with all the wish-fulfillment macho posturing and then the grudging lurches toward decent appearances?

Mr. Nugent has an answer, and yes, it ain't pretty. It also helps explain the president's peculiar position these days: "The sad thing about Bush Junior's attempt to have it both ways is that it so completely dynamites his dirty-realist-bastard image, it leaves him with blood on his hands but with none of the glamour that's supposed to go with it."

On the other hand, it's easy enough to see Bush as a lame dick/duck. But you'll notice we're still pretty much playing to his rules on just about everything: the war, the environment, health care, domestic eavesdropping, control of presidential archives, gutting government oversight, homeland security and disaster management, etc.

When President Clinton was apparently mortally wounded, the Republican Congress prevented him from appointing anyone and forced him to accept such things as welfare reform. What have the last election and a Democratic Congress accomplished?

The departure of Donald Rumsfeld and an increase in the minimum wage.

October 11, 2007 5:49 PM |

Steven Pinker writes in The New Republic on why we swear, and why we care about swearing. Fucking brilliant, needless to say, is not the same as brilliant fucking.

"But perhaps the greatest mystery [about curse words] is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words' sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals.

Progressive writers have pointed to this gap to argue that linguistic taboos are absurd. A true moralist, they say, should hold that violence and inequality are "obscene," not sex and excretion. And yet, since the 1970s, many progressives have imposed linguistic taboos of their own, such as the stigma surrounding the N-word and casual allusions to sexual desire or sexual attractiveness. So even people who revile the usual bluenoses can become gravely offended by their own conception of bad language. The question is, why?

The strange emotional power of swearing--as well as the presence of linguistic taboos in all cultures-- suggests that taboo words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain. In general, words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the word literally refers to, as in principled versus stubborn and slender versus scrawny. The difference between a taboo word and its genteel synonyms, such as shit and feces, cunt and vagina, or fucking and making love, is an extreme example of the distinction. Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain."

October 11, 2007 10:42 AM |

  • He's entertained and enlightened me more than most websites I've had to pay for. Except the one with the midget donkey mud wrestling.

    Back in late July, Phil Nugent had to shut down his sharp, funny website, the Phil Nugent Experience, until he got his computer upgraded. book/daddy jokingly suggested that Nugent was out dancing for nickels, and I demanded to know why someone hadn't thought of passing the hat to prevent such a loss.

    Then the Experience came back online last month and all was aces.

    But "oh my prophetic soul," to quote Hamlet. Or maybe it was "me and my big mouth." In any event, the finances have gotten bad enough, Nugent has put up a donation link. You can help out via PayPal.

    I just did. And I'm unemployed. Or freelancing. Same diff.

  • A friend in Anchorage reports:

    "The Anchorage Daily News has eliminated the positions of Books and Food editors and sent that longtime staffer to the equivalent of McKinney [a small town north of Dallas] as a G.A. reporter.

    This week's only mention of books is a single column announcing self-published books by Alaska writers. No national coverage of any sort."

    It's hard to confirm this from the Daily News website -- because at the moment, there's precious little about books, period.

  • Follow the logic. The value of a college degree has shot up the past 27 years. In 1980, people with college degrees earned 50 percent more than those with high school degrees. Today, it's more than 100 percent.

    But the college grad/higher earners also pay more taxes. Ergo, George Will says, conservatives are right when they argue that taxes are discouraging people from sending their kids to college.

    Says Andrew Price: You are fucking kidding me.

  • And if you plan on curing your Monday blues chemically, there's this: The quality of cocaine sucks these days, yet it costs significantly more.

    As Baudelaire complained of hash: "It gives with one hand and takes away with the other." So ... given the curent market, fewer of us, it turns out, are testing positive these days.

  • October 7, 2007 10:11 PM |

    Appalling, heartbreaking Congressional testimony by Edwidge Danticat about the death of her 81-year-old, Haitian-minister uncle at the hands of U.S. Homeland Security authorities -- posted at Critical Mass. It's the basis for her new memoir, Brother, I'm Dying,

    October 6, 2007 10:03 AM |

    One has to wonder what author George Saunders did to the good people at Riverhead Books, the publishers of his new humor-travel-political essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone. Whatever he did -- something involving kerosene and warehouses full of other authors' best-sellers, no doubt -- he certainly didn't deserve the Butt-Ugliest Book Jacket in History.

    The Butt-Ugliest Jacket is indeed hideous, like something an earlier era would have had burned outright. You can see it briefly in the entertaining David Letterman clip above, in which Mr. Saunders discusses his "inner nun-itude" at a Chicago Bears game and knuckle-pulling in an Amarillo slaughterhouse, and a brief glimpse of the cover is all you'lll want. If you wish to avoid the close-up at the end, stop the clip around .10 seconds.

    The book's title essay is about our dumbed-down media, so it's apparent that the jacket design is intended as a crass send-up of crass media cliches: The only way to convey the full extent of media vulgarity would be to out-vulgar it. This is a simple-minded bit of cleverness that used to be called the "imitative fallacy" (as in, "My novel is chaotic and unreadable because that's the way life is, innit?"). It's a fallacy in that it can be used to justify almost anything ("Don't you get it? The film turns sentimental and stupid at the end because it's an ironic comment on sentimental stupidity").

    So -- with that said -- the fact is that Mr. Saunders' writing definitely doesn't imitate this ungodly eyesore. It's not clear what would -- archly unfunny literary treatments of drowning babies, perhaps -- but it's plain that whatever it would be, no one would probably want to read it.

    Which does make it different from Braindead, two-thirds of which is enjoyable and smart and recommended. With Civilwarland in Bad Decline in 1996, his debut collection of short stories, Mr. Saunders poineered a bleakly hilarious kind of sadsack office satire, a satire of the American workplace and the corporate language and bureaucratic thinking that go with work today. The title alone is typical of this official report-speak, which combines idiot optimism with bland denial, refering, for example, to life-threatening diisasters as "Revenue-Impacting Events." Mr. Saunders' stories are often told from the viewpoint of a harassed, ineffectual underling or lower-middle-management type. He generally knows much better than his bosses how truly twisted things are but is powerless to correct them or even to convince his bosses of the dire situation because he's not fully aware of how evil or incompetent his bosses are.

    In the new essays, therefore, it's not too long a leap for Mr. Saunders to step into the role of the hapless, clueless, well-meaning narrator -- while taking on such subjects as Mr. Bush's War (the dead brain) and contemporary media (the megaphone). He also visits the Disneyland-Meets-Arab-Oil-Profit fantasy city of Dubai ("The New Mecca") -- in its own way, as marvelous a travel report as David Foster Wallace's treatment pf cruise ships ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"). He checks out a Nepalese holy teen who seems to be surviving on nothing ("Buddha Boy") and pens some literary criticism that's actually illuminating and entertaining, no small feat indeed (the terrific "The United States of Huck" and "The Perfect Gerbil" -- on Donald Barthelme, clearly one of his great inspirations). While his fictional characters are generally kind of pathetic-poignant in a lost, nebbishy way, his own narrator self adds a richer dimension to many of these essays: a very sensitive empathy (sometimes too sensitive) wrestling with his own best and worst instincts.

    So what about that other one-third? someone way in the back yells out. The one-third you didn't like? Glad you brought that up, I reply grudgingly while making a mental note to have the wise guy thoroughly tasered.

    Update: New Genius Discovered! Check out the jump

    October 4, 2007 11:34 AM |

    Check out the new, official book/daddy motto. It always classes up a joint when you can quote a namesake Church Father cursing out people ... in Latin.

    October 3, 2007 2:14 PM | | Comments (3)


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