Today is George Washington's birthday, also known as Presidents Day, and I hope you got the day off. A mid-March holiday has to be about the best time to sit down and enjoy a good book-- you've got the day to yourself, the winter months are dragging on, and spring is still at least a month away. Here's what the media had to say about books over the weekend.
Bonus Question: What is it with all the dark covers this week?
We start off with some sad news. Anthony Shadid of The New York Times died in Syria last week of an apparent asthma attack. The paper points out that he faced many dangers while on recent assignment in Syria, "not the least of which was discovery by the pro-government authorities in Syria." He had sneaked into the country across the Turkish border, at a point where the two countries were only separated by barbed wire. According to the Times, "Mr. Hicks (a photographer traveling with Shadid) said they squeezed through the fence's lower portion by pulling the wires apart, and guides on horseback met them on the other side. It was on that first night, Mr. Hicks said, that Mr. Shadid suffered an initial bout of asthma, apparently set off by an allergy to the horses, but he recovered after resting." A week later, on return to the border, he collapsed and died.
Shadid is the author of House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, which is scheduled to be published on March 27th. You can listen to an NPR interview with him here.
Stacy Schiff has a review of Nathan Englander's excellent new collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Schiff compares this new collection to his 1999 debut collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, writing that both are "poised at the trapdoor between spiritual thirst and physical hunger." The final sentence of Schiff's review simply states, "Terrific collection," and I would second that. Englander visited Amazon last week for an interview, so look for that on Omnivoracious in the coming weeks.
Another author who we recently interviewed (again, the interview will be on Omni soon) is the journalist Jodi Kantor. She is the author of The Obamas, of which the Times states, "call it chick nonfiction, if you will; this book is not about politics, it's about marriage, or at least one marriage, and a notably successful one at that. This is a couple who listen to each other, and no one believes more in America's 44th president than his wife." You may recall hearing some controversy around this title, but it's mostly overblown. In fact, the review calls it "a dimly controversial palace intrigue that attempts to explain how the first couple's marriage works," and states later that, "taken as a whole, The Obamas is more valentine than vitriol," and that's true. But it's also a fascinating account of a very successful, yet in many ways very normal marriage. It was a unique, and in many ways, more real, look at the White House. And it's a book that's difficult to put down.
The Washington Post ran Senator and former Secretary of the Navy James Webb's review of Anthony Shadid's 2005 book Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. Webb describes the book as "grunt reporting," explaining that "much of the book is almost novelistic; he introduces Iraqis of widely varying beliefs and backgrounds, revisiting many of them several times from the American invasion to the period following the 2004 battles in Najaf and Fallujah, thus allowing us to see ."‰."‰. through their eyes."
The Washington Post calls Jim Yardley's Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing "rollicking," and cites how appropriate it is that the book is coming out during the "Linsanity" that's building up around Jeremy Lin, Chinese-American point guard for the NBA's New York Knicks. In spite of China's billion-plus population and its millions of basketball fans, it could be asked why the country can't produce one NBA-caliber point guard (described as a player requiring "creativity, freedom, passion and leadership"). Must be Communism's fault, right? Yes and no. As the book shows, communism doesn't necessarily lead to a legion of automatons; in some cases, it's quite as capable of creating wild eccentrics as any other political system. And this is where Coach Weiss-- the American coach brought in to turn around a Chinese team's fortunes and teach a little US can-do attitude-- finds himself. "Thrust into this absurd situation, Weiss plays the role of straight man, absorbing every mishap with bemused affability. He is the reader's touchstone. But the book's humor and momentum come from the eccentric characters swirling around him."
Thomas Mallon's "kaleidoscopic new novel" Watergate is described as a novel that "puts fictional flesh on the bones of what we know about the gradual collapse of the Nixon administration after the bungled 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex." Of course, "Crouching at the center of the novel's intricate web is Nixon himself, who receives a carefully nuanced treatment as a man whose darkest impulses were rendered all the more tragic by his capacity for greatness." Can you be a great man and a crook at the same time? And will readers necessarily agree on the answer?
Filipino-American Lyslie Tenorio's Monstress, described as a collection of "taut and beguilingly weird stories," gets a fine review. According to August Brown, "Tenorio's stories, set amid mingling nationalities and generations, prompt comparisons to the works of Junot DÃaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, who mine similar questions of how a life set apart (via immigration, nerdiness or other myriad reasons) seeps into a person's sense of self. But the refreshingly wry stories in Monstress are rangier and less concerned with documenting the specific experience of emigrating. Instead they're focused on uncanny moments...."
Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White is about a white man, born in Iowa, who became a noted patron and chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance. But as the review points out, "the line separating passion and obsession is porous. One step over that boundary, the territory becomes fraught "” rutted with suspicion, quiet judgment if not outright accusation. This was the territory Carl Van Vechten... traversed with a singular vigor and preoccupation that bordered on fetishism." It goes on: "As a critic for the New York Times and Vanity Fair, he pressed his highly placed connections "” most effectively Alfred and Blanche Knopf "” to publish the work of heretofore unheard of poets, essayists and novelists writing forthrightly about the black experience in America." And yet he is looked back on with some suspicion (and was at the time). The review summarizes by asking, "Did Van Vechten overstep? Did arrogance obscure his intent to elevate? Bernard explains at the outset that her quest was not to determine whether Van Vechten was a 'good or bad force'; rather, it's a measure of legacy and the potency of language "” the fraught territory of race and the still-present wound of racism. Van Vechten's choices and motives became a catalyst for discussion among the black literati who would debate and sculpt and define for themselves "” not simply the stigma of one word but also the language and stories that would come to define the complexity "” 'the epic theater of blackness.'"
According to USA Today, "With her best-selling novels about strong women facing down whatever life throws at them, Kristin Hannah makes her fans cry. And they love her for it."
Turns out e-books aren't the end of the world. So says NPR, which covered the "Tools of Change" digital publishing conference in New York. According to the story, the conference "attracted entrepreneurs and innovators who are more excited by, rather than afraid of, the future."
The Millions has an interview with Scandinavian thriller writer Joe Nesbo.
The Daily Beast featured a link to this video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about creativity:
In time for President's Day, a tower of Lincoln books.
Crime may not pay, but in some cases being convicted does.
Did you know there is an The Elements of Style rap?