It's Halloween today, but surprisingly that doesn't have much bearing on Media Monday. Yes, there are lots of vampires and monsters in literature. And if those books last long enough, they can become classics. Frankenstein and Dracula. Beowulf. Tolkien. It's foolish to begin listing them, because the list goes on and on and on....
But when it comes to Halloween-esque writers in Media Monday, the cupboard is pretty bare. Here you'll find a review of Stephen King's new book, although there isn't much horror in it. And toward the very bottom is a short bit about Anne Rice, but that's about as far as it goes.
So here's a treat (or tweet, as it were): I noticed that Colson Whitehead's zombie book Zone One has hit the bestseller list-- in honor of that, I'm going to suggest to all the Twitterers out there that you do yourself a favor and check out: @colsonwhitehead on Twitter. He's bright, funny, articulate, and already has about 95,000 followers. Let's see if we can put him over 100,000. That would be a neat trick.
Frank Rich has a long cover review of two books concerned with the once famous, now practically forgotten movie critic Pauline Kael. His review is commodious, and it almost makes me wonder what's left to be learned in the books he's reporting on. It also comes on the heels of the Times cover review a couple of weeks ago discussing not one but two books concerned with the media moguls, the Medill family. The next weeks or months will reveal if this multi-book review technique is a new trend or just a coincidence.
To summarize the importance of Kael, there was a time when people rushed to the news stand to read her reviews. Rich frames it this way: "If you want to understand what it was like to be in the audience during America's thrilling, now vanished age of movies, you must begin with Kael." But, he points out, "It's also true... that Kael's retirement, in 1991 at age 71, was a national news story. But her death, at 82 in 2001, was not. The culture of the new century was rapidly moving on. Now yet another decade has passed, and Kael may be little read outside of cineaste circles and film-studies academia (a milieu she detested). Most of her books are out of print. Ask moviegoers under 40 who she is, and you may draw a blank." If you're a Kael enthusiast or would like to be one, the two books Rich reviews are the cleverly-titled Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark and the slightly more pokerfaced The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael.
If you're looking for something varied, different, and consistently fascinating, you need look no further than John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of pop culture essays, Pulphead. But don't take my word for it. Reviewer Gideon Lewis-Kraus adds, "It is something of a surprise that one of the best magazine profiles of the last decade is about Axl Rose. But such is the work of John Jeremiah Sullivan, who can take pretty much anything you never thought you'd want to read about respectably (Axl Rose, "Real World") or anything you never thought you'd want to read about at all (a Christian-rock festival, long-forgotten naturalist loons), and make of it the sort of essay-world you just want to dwell inside."
Finally, Janet Maslin has a review of Stephen King's 11/22/63 (only a writer of King's stature could get that title past his publisher). Maslin says, "Mr. King pulls off a sustained high-wire act of storytelling trickery. He makes alternative history work "” but how?" Here's the what, not the how-- and the what is that this novel imagines what would have happened if someone could have traveled back in time to try to stop the assassination of JFK. Maslin summarizes the 849 page novel this way: "The pages of 11/22/63 fly by, filled with immediacy, pathos and suspense. It takes great brazenness to go anywhere near this subject matter. But it takes great skill to make this story even remotely credible. Mr. King makes it all look easy, which is surely his book's fanciest trick."
David L. Ulin traveled to New York to talk to Joan Didion about her new book, Blue Nights, which is about losing her daughter, Quintana Roo. There are natural comparisons to The Year of Magical Thinking, which was about the loss of her husband, and Ulin addresses them: "Like The Year of Magical Thinking, it's an example of the book as coping mechanism, of an author using language to 'maintain movement,' as Didion puts it, 'otherwise you couldn't function. It's a necessary mask.' Like The Year of Magical Thinking, it is written almost entirely in fragments, as if it would otherwise be impossible to make all these impressions coalesce. 'Memories are what you no longer want to remember,' Didion writes about a third of the way rough the book, and it's one of those lines that resonates because it hints at both the futility and the inescapability of the task. 'A big part of the book is how to function. It's a lesson on how to function,' she says flatly. 'Because otherwise you would not be able to get through the day, the week.'
Compare this: "He died with a personal fortune of more than $8 billion (according to Forbes), having been a single-minded pioneer of the PC age, having created and built arguably the world's most famous company, Apple, and having, in some way or another, touched all our lives. He was a visionary as ruthless and driven as any of the great first-generation American capitalists and his story already strikes us as a modern-day fable with a multitude of strange and enchanted details."
With this: "His personal hygiene was bad. He often wore no shoes and liked to stick his feet in the toilet. His food faddery was so extreme that he sometimes endangered his own health. While in a hospital for a liver transplant in 2009, he refused to wear a medical mask because he couldn't stand the design.... He lived in a Palo Alto house whose modest scale astounded his rival Bill Gates. He said that he came of age at a magical time, in the early 1970s, when his consciousness was raised by Zen, Bob Dylan, and the drug LSD."
And you'll start to get a sense of how fascinating the book Steve Jobs is.
In 2009 FBI agent Ali H. Soufan testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was screened behind a black curtain to hide his identity, and there are certainly people in the government who would have like to hide his testimony as well. About his new book, reviewer Dina Temple-Rason reports, "Now Soufan has fired another salvo, in a memoir titled The Black Banners. The book goes behind the scenes of some of the most important terrorism interrogations since 9/11, and it paints a devastating picture of the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA's counterterrorism units." This book is already famous for having been redacted by the CIA, and the blackouts are right there in the text. Despite these ommissions, the book sounds fascinating: "We learn that terrorists smirk when they think they have the upper hand. They quarrel over interpretations of the Koran. One burst into tears after he was allowed to telephone his family."
Dennis Drabelle reviews a book that I enjoyed very much. It's Wade Davis's Into the Silence, and it's difficult not to compare this book to a mountain itself: challenging and occasionally steep terrain, but an experience that's ultimately extremely satisfying. This is a climbing book that has more depth and texture than most books in its category. Drabelle explains the main premise: "It's no accident that Britain threw money and men at Everest not long after the end of World War I, in which nearly a million British lives had been lost and when survivors (such as Mallory himself) were recovering from the traumas and depression inflicted by trench warfare. As Davis sums up his theme, the efforts to climb Everest 'fed into a greater quest, embraced readily by a tired and exhausted people, to show that . . . the war had not expunged everything heroic and inspired.'"
Ron Charles writes an essay about a movie that's getting attention in literary circles, which he describes as "Anonymous, Roland Emmerich's new costume drama that has English professors tying their tweed blazers into knots." What's it about? Well, the movie posits that Shakespeare was a fraud and that the Earl of Oxford was the real author of his plays. What does Charles think of this theory? In his own words, "Once you allow that some glovemaker's son from Stratford with a grade-school education wrote those plays, you're likely to start imagining that a cloistered old maid in Amherst, Mass., composed the greatest poetry of the 19th century. (But don't listen to me. I'm nobody. Who are you?)"
Reading The London Review of Books generally results in me being reminded that I'm not as smart as I think I am. The experience can sting, but I realize I shouldn't take it too personally, that I'm often just collateral damage, an anonymous victim in someone else's war-- in this case it's between reviewer Pankaj Mishra and the author Niall Ferguson, who wrote the book Civilization: The West and the Rest. Mishra lobs the following with concussive, disorienting force: "the book exemplifies a mood, at once swaggering, frustrated, vengeful and despairing, among men of a certain age, class and education on the Upper East Side and the West End. Western Civilisation is unlikely to go out of business any time soon, but the neoimperialist gang might well face redundancy. In that sense, Ferguson's metamorphoses in the last decade "“ from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past "“ have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings. His next move shouldn't be missed." Another smart bomb finds its target.
Here's a piece that is sure to tick off some people. It's entitled "the graphic novels that transcend the comic book medium." Apparently, there are only ten of them. You can read the list here.
From Slate, a little more on Pauline Kael. As Dana Stevens writes, "The woman whose 82-year-long life Kellow chronicles in this meticulously researched, sympathetic book was a real piece of work: self-assured to the point of arrogance, boundlessly energetic and brashly combative, capable of generously nurturing talent in the filmmakers and journalists she admired and then, just as brusquely, abandoning or betraying them."
Here's an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides.
In the wake of a new Three Musketeers movie, Bill Morris writes about Alexander Dumas, author of hundreds of books, including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, and why Dumas will be with us forever. Morris writes in part, "Dumas was as colorful as any of the characters who populated his fiction. As his biographer AndrÃ© Maurois would later put it, 'Dumas was a hero out of Dumas.' He amassed and spent several fortunes, ate and drank like a king, kept mistresses, fathered illegitimate children, ran a theater, built a mansion, and showed resourcefulness when it came to dodging creditors."
If you have ever found yourself wondering about first editions of books, this video may be the definitive statement on how to identify first editions.
They had me at "Somewhere, Maxwell Perkins is weeping."
Finally, as promised, and just in time for Halloween, Anne Rice has written a Facebook post comparing her vampires to the Twilight vampires. (I noticed that the link to her Facebook page has been taken down, but if you're inclined to friend her you can explore further.)