(Apologies for the lateness. I had the flu.)
Have you heard there's a big new movie coming out?
I won't go into it too much, because if you have children, or a television, or you're one of the millions who loves the series, or you possess any of the senses, you probably know that The Hunger Games is opening at the end of the week.
Although I had nice things to say about it over the holidays, I'll refrain from discussing it in this Media Monday, lest you suffer from Hunger pangs. Or loss of appetite. Or maybe you don't care either way. This post will remain a Hunger-free Zone.
Still, it's nice to see a book get so much attention. As Young Adult Books Editor at Amazon, Jessica Schein said the other day, "There are books we all love, and books we can't put down, and then there are books that morph into cultural events." Well put, Jessica.
The New York Times takes us to court in this Sunday's Book Review. A review of Dale Carpenter's Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas tells us that "Dale Carpenter's Flagrant Conduct is a stirring and richly detailed account of Lawrence v. Texas, the momentous 2003 decision that overturned Bowers." The reference is to "Bowers v. Hardwick," a 1986 Supreme Court decision that is largely seen as a key ruling against the privacy of homosexuals. Reviewer David Oshinsky writes that the book "tells the story through the eyes of the major players "” the plaintiffs, arresting officers, attorneys, judges and prosecutors "” most of whom were interviewed at length. The result is a book that turns conventional wisdom about Lawrence on its head. Indeed, the readers most likely to be surprised by Flagrant Conduct are those who think they already know the basic outlines of the case."
Kevin Boyle calls Raymond Bonner's Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong "mesmerizing," describing first the grizzly 1982 murder that sets up the case, then describing the man who was sentenced to death for the crime, eventually telling us that this capital case, like so many, "was shaped by the fearsome combination of race and class." For years, the case was in and out of court. "Then, in the summer of 1993, [the] file ended up in the hands of Diana Holt, a law student working as an intern for the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. And the case's trajectory suddenly changed." Boyle that we watch as Holt "peels back the prosecution's omissions, manipulations and deceits, and tries to uncover what really happened in Dorothy Edwards's home on that brutal weekend in 1982. It's a marvelous move: in Holt's relentless investigation, Bonner has found a way to turn this sad, sordid story into an utterly engrossing true-crime tale."
The Vanishers, our top pick for the March Best Books of the Month graces the Sunday Times this weekend (it seems like this book has been on Media Monday a lot lately, but then again it is one of the best books of the month). The Times says, "The darkly comic world of Heidi Julavits's latest novel contains warring psychics, missing people who've deliberately vanished themselves, twisted avant-garde filmmakers, absent mothers, striving academics, plastic surgery enthusiasts, Sylvia Plath obsessives "” and the people who love to hate and pursue all of them. Beneath this hyperactivity, the novel deals, fundamentally, with the "economics of revenge" and a daughter's search for her mother. It is told in Julavits's signature style: sharp-eyed, sardonic, hilarious."
Two wonderful book critics are featured in this review. The first is John Leonard, "once the literary editor of the Nation and editor of the New York Times Book Review," and "perhaps the most important literary critic in the last half of the 20th century." The other is David L. Ulin, who is one of the best critics writing. The book that brings them together is Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard, who died of lung cancer in 2008. David Ulin points out that both he and Leonard have viewed criticism "as an expression of social and cultural engagement, a function of political or literary life." Or as Ulin writes later in the review, "criticism can take us to the heart of everything: aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, political." But what of literature? Ulin writes of Leonard, that "literature should provoke a strong reaction, an essential connection when nothing else will suffice. Leonard understood, as he writes again and again in this collection, that '[w]e must live together, and will die alone,' and that a book, in the words of Franz Kafka, 'must be an axe for the frozen sea in us.' That this is, in the end, a futile endeavor is a key part of his faith: to pay attention, in the little time allowed us, to the things that matter, not to be distracted by ephemera and gloss. '[P]opular culture,' he observes in the title essay, 'is "¦ like going to the Automat to buy an emotion. The thrills are cheap and the payoffs predictable and, after a while, the repetition is a bummer. Whereas books are where we go to complicate ourselves.'" Ulin sums up this section of the review with, "Amen, brother. I couldn't have said it better myself." It's touching, and it's profound, and the more you read, the more books like this-- books that frame reading culture-- become must-reads.
I've encountered so many reviews of Carl Hiassen's Chomp over the last couple weeks, that I feel I'd be remiss not to include one. Susan Carpenter writes in her review that this "middle-school novel" is one that "bears all the Hiaasen hallmarks, minus the sex" and that in it "a young boy named Wahoo helps his father recover from an iguana-caused concussion. Wahoo, however, is mostly a bystander to a rollicking plot that pulls back the curtain on so-called reality TV and its biggest outdoorsy phenom, 'Man vs. Wild.'" Carpenter writes that "The real star of Chomp is Derek Badger, a former Irish folk dancer-turned-showbiz survivalist who landed the lead role on 'Expedition Survival!' for his ability to swallow a live salamander without vomiting. Badger is a huge television star who sports a spray-on tan and fake Australian accent and enjoys five-course meals and five-star hotels off camera." Sound familiar? Absurd? Both? "Hiaasen delights in over-the-top absurdism, not only in his plot but his wordsmithing. His inventive descriptions alone make this book worth reading. When Wahoo's dad snores, it sounds 'like a dump truck stripping its gears.' As for the airboat driver, his 'mind operated in a simple way, uncluttered by curiosity and ambition.'" I've got to admit that reading these reviews has gotten me to want to read the book. But is this YA novel going to hold my attention? Carpenter says, "Luckily for readers, Hiaasen's mind is more complex. Chomp is a delightful laugh-out-loud sendup of the surreality of TV that will be enjoyed by readers of all ages." Sold.
The Millions has a homework assignment for all writers or would-be writers.
I don't live in New York anymore, and neither does this writer for the LA Times, but if you do, there are two big literary to-dos coming up in New York that you might be interested in knowing about.
You probably already knew this, but reading fiction is like exercise for your brain.
Steve Martin has been doing publicity for his new book The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.: The Tweets of Steve Martin, and Galley Cat has a short piece on what he's had to say about Twitter. With Twitter, "the comedian quickly felt like he was swimming in a new form of comedy, a large scale comedy crowd-sourced talk-and-response rhythm never before possible." There's some funny stuff in here.
The Miami Herald, tells us that in the upcoming book Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine a retired CIA analyst discloses that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald told Cuban intelligence officers he planned to kill Kennedy.