Jim Lehrer's No Good, Very Bad JFK Assassination Novel

All you really need to know about Top Down is that it reads like a YA novel for old people.

Unless we watch PBS on hallucinogens, which is as unlikely in my case—I can't speak for you, obviously—as watching it at all, we have no idea what Jim Lehrer looks like when he's bug-eyed with a spirit of gleeful larceny. But imagine the thrill of un-Lehrer-like cunning he no doubt felt at bringing out Top Down— boldly subtitled "a novel of the Kennedy assassination"—just in time to cash in on the 50th anniversary of the big event. Et tu, Jim? Now that Newshour 's heretofore cleaner-than-a-hound's-tooth anchorman has acquired a taste for this kind of sordidness, he'll probably be arrested for shoplifting next. It turns out, however, that Lehrer has been saving up a precious anecdote about his own bit part on November 22, 1963, for half a century. As a young (can it be?) reporter for a long-gone (it can) Dallas daily, he covered JFK and Jackie's arrival at Love Field. The rewrite man back at his paper's office wanted to know whether the presidential limo's bubble top was going to be up...

Korean Lit Comes to America

The country frets that it trails China and Japan, which have won literary Nobels.

AP Photo/The Christian Science Monitor, Ann Hermes
I f, as an American, you visit a globalized megacity like Seoul, you’ll find plenty that feels familiar. Take chain bookstores: There’s bad lighting, as many smartphone accessories for sale as books, and sneaky customer habits. “I check out the covers,” says Claire, a young South Korean who’s showing me around. “If I like one, I go back to my apartment and buy it online.” Claire and I are ambling through the Kyobo Book Center in Seoul’s Gangnam district. Gangnam, of course, is the place PSY raps about in “Gangnam Style,” a song that sends up his country’s materialism and wealth. Gangnam is home to Samsung’s corporate headquarters, the city’s neon-saturated nightlife, and outposts for the top international brands, all spread out on a grid of spacious boulevards. It’s the polished, cosmopolitan Korea. What feels less familiar—more messy and alive—is the rest of the city. The streets twist and taper in a never-ending game of chicken, motorcycles versus taxis. The architecture seems to...

When Robots Take Over, What Happens to Us?

Artificial intelligence has a long way to go before computers are as intelligent as humans. But progress is happening rapidly, in everything from logical reasoning to facial and speech recognition. With steady improvements in memory, processing power, and programming, the question isn't if a computer will ever be as smart as a human, but only how long it will take. And once computers are as smart as people, they'll keep getting smarter, in short order become much, much smarter than people. When artificial intelligence (AI) becomes artificial superintelligence (ASI), the real problems begin. In his new book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era , James Barrat argues that we need to begin thinking now about how artificial intelligences will treat their creators when they can think faster, reason better, and understand more than any human. These questions were long the province of thrilling (if not always realistic) science fiction, but Barrat warns...

Bretton Woods Revisited

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AP Images O n July 22, 1944, as allied troops were racing across Normandy to liberate Paris, representatives of 44 nations meeting at the Mount Washington resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, created a financial and monetary system for the postwar era. It had taken three weeks of exhausting diplomacy. At the closing banquet, the assembled delegates rose and sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” The fellow in question was John Maynard Keynes, leader of the British delegation and intellectual inspiration of the Bretton Woods design. Lord Keynes, the world’s most celebrated economist, was playing a tricky dual role. He had proposed a radical new monetary system to free the world from the deflationary pressures that had caused and prolonged the Great Depression. Bretton Woods, he hoped, would be the international anchor for the suite of domestic measures that came to be known as Keynesian—the use of public spending to cure depression and the regulation of financial markets to prevent...

Soul Food's Contested History

Does a new account with recipes get it right?

AP Images/ Jeff Roberson
AP Images/ Jeff Roberson The kitchen of Sweetie Pie's in St. Louis, Missouri. A bout a year ago, I was going down the line at Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove, Ms. Robbie Montgomery’s culinary temple to all things soul in St. Louis. The macaroni and cheese gleamed, the fried chicken was crisper than Ms. Robbie’s outfits when she sang backup as an Ikette, and the peach cobbler was worthy of a last meal. Surveying the clientele, however, I wondered how much connection the crowd that packed the house had to the food at hand. My fellow bear brothers (stocky, hairy, gay, but unlike me almost all white) were in town from across the Midwest for their bar night. I was in St. Louis to present on the heritage of Missouri’s African American foodways during slavery. I was hankering for a dialogue—minority to minority—on the meaning of food as hot-sauce bottles were passed around and the uninitiated suspiciously sniffed, then scarfed plates of collard greens. I suppressed my culinary-historian self...

Dave Eggers Is Worried about America

The famously hopeful novelist's move to dystopian fiction in The Circle.


AP Images/Tina Fineberg
I n his 2007 novel Spook Country , William Gibson has one of his characters, a mysterious entrepreneur named Hubertus Bigend, explain to the book’s protagonist, investigative journalist Hollis Henry, that espionage and other intelligence work are “advertising turned inside out.” When Hollis asks what this cryptic observation implies, Bigend answers with the malevolent flourish of a Bond villain, “Secrets … are cool. … Secrets … are the very root of cool.” “Secrets are cool” could be the tagline of Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle . At a moment when eavesdropping programs are exposed almost daily, the novel suggests that secrets might not be such a bad thing after all. As our lives become more public, we might need more privacy, not less. Total transparency—when mixed with soft surveillance, Big Data analytic tools, and the gamification of everyday life—might become, in the words of one of the novel’s characters, “a totalitarian nightmare.” Over the past decade or so, Eggers has...

Mailer's Mark

AP Images/Kathy Willens
AP Images/Kathy Willens I t sometimes chagrins me that there is no author whose work I’ll ever know the way I do Norman Mailer’s. An adolescent immersion in Alexander Pope (unlikely) or Stendhal (if only) might have stood me in better stead, but it wasn’t to be. Until I came up for air sometime after college—Mailer as lodestar didn’t survive Edith Wharton, let alone Nabokov—I was an avid member of the boys’ club inflamed by his example. I’ve never met a woman who clamored for admission. Or much of anyone under 50 who wants in even as a kibitzer, which is bad news for the immortality Mailer craved. As he himself told us, he “formed the desire to be a major writer”—note the crucial adjective—shortly before turning 17, thanks to discovering John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. , James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan , and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath . In his Depression-era boyhood, though, Mailer had thrilled to the romances of Rafael Sabatini, the immortal (well, more so than James T. Farrell)...

Jezebel Grew Up

Nikola Tamindzic
Nikola Tamindzic/Jezebel T he website Jezebel was born in 2007 out of the idea that the urban (or at least urbane) American woman was a ripe demographic, yearning to read about pop culture, fashion, and sex in a more skeptical way than the package provided by the traditional glossy women’s magazine. “In media, men are not a coherent sect,” Internet entrepreneur and Machiavellian overlord of Gawker Media Nick Denton told The New York Times in 2010. “You go into a magazine store and see rows upon rows of women’s magazines. [With women], there’s a much clearer collective.” The mother ship blog of Denton’s empire, Gawker, had made its name in the aughts by obsessively covering the then-Manhattan-centric media scene, turning its cool kids into Internet celebrities, their lives and movements chronicled, snarked at, and used as signifiers for Gotham’s ills and triumphs. Gawker media expanded to include a consortium of blogs focused on everything from sports (Deadspin) to gadgets (Gizmodo)...

Don't Kill Your Darlings!

Flickr/Sharon Drummond
There's a new movie about the Beats, called Kill Your Darlings , and as you might know, the title refers to a piece of literary advice which says that as a writer you should let go of the sentences or passages you love most dearly, presumably because they're self-indulgent and reduce the quality of the work as a whole. Today, Forest Wickman of Slate investigates the provenance of this saying, which apparently is often attributed to Faulkner, though it has been repeated by many a great writer. Turns out it goes back to one Arthur Quiller Couch, who wrote in 1914, "If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings ." Now maybe I'm just a narcissistic hack who'll never get anywhere, but I've always found this oft-repeated maxim to be infuriating. In short, I think it's crap. One of the...

Writing the Best Story that She Can

The Prospect talks with Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award winner and author of the recently published memoir, Men We Reaped.

"...the only sound I hear is the tortured parrot that one of my cousins owns, a parrot that screams so loudly it sounds through the neighborhood, a scream like a wounded child, from a cage so small the parrot’s crest barely clears the top of the cage while its tail brushes the bottom. Sometimes when that parrot screams, sounding its rage and grief, I wonder at my neighborhood’s silence. I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story." Alluding to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , Jesmyn Ward begins her memoir, Men We Reaped , by revealing why she chose to write about the five-year period in which she lost her brother, cousin, and three friends. Ward transforms the parrot’s scream into a lyrical howl for a forgotten people in a forsaken state. Ward's mother was a housekeeper for wealthy families on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; her father a dreamer and philanderer. After learning of Ward’s...

Royal Rumble: Academics vs. Film Critics

AP/Belknap Press
It's not every Sunday morning I find myself engaged in a Twitter quarrel with Richard J. Evans, today's foremost (though Ian Kershaw may disagree) academic historian of the Third Reich. But Sir Richard—yes, he's been knighted—is also the foremost academic defender of Ben Urwand's controversial new book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler , and I had a bone to pick with him. I can't say I'm not grateful he answered, although my dream of blowing off Cambridge's Regius Professor of Modern History by tweeting, "Gotta go. Saints game's on!" didn't materialize. The nature of my bone—and I suspect I've waited years to commit that phrase to the public's tender mercies, Prospect readers—was fairly simple. I haven't read The Collaboration yet, a disqualifier from passing judgment on it I strongly urge you to keep in mind. Because I'm a movie reviewer and my colleagues are involved, I'd been a fascinated onlooker to the kerfuffle over Urwand's alleged "reckless" misinterpretations...

The Conflicted Gay Pioneer

AP Images/Ron Frehm
W hen it comes to American political thought, who in our nation’s history did the thinking and writing that we ought to care about? The Puritans, for starters. They created a theocracy in a strange land and the idea of American exceptionalism. The Founders invented a new democratic form of government, wrote its charters—the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—and explained the logics of its nascent institutions. The argument about whether and how to remain true to these texts has unfolded ever since, with contributions from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to today. Because the Founders built a new government on a narrow social base of slave owners and propertied white men, significant political thought must also include the works of abolitionists and champions of blacks’, women’s, immigrants’ rights—everyone who persuaded Americans to update and expand what was meant by “We the People.” In the wake of our country’s enormous gains in gay rights, it’...

You’re Tearing Us Apart, Tommy!

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s new book, The Disaster Artist, basks in the delightful weirdness of The Room and its chief architect.

Photo by Amanda Edwards/PictureGroup
T he greatest bad movie ever made." That's what the subtitle of The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero with co-author Tom Bissell (Simon & Shuster, $25.99), calls crackpot director-writer-star Tommy Wiseau's The Room, on which Sestero labored as costar, line producer, and thunderstruck eyewitness. The object of a worldwide cult that's still going strong a decade after the movie's 2003 "release”—it played for two weeks in a single L.A. theater rented by Wiseau, to mostly empty houses until word began to spread that this was no ordinary train wreck— The Room has definitely displaced the previous bad-movie champ, Ed Wood's legendary 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, in both notoriety and audience affection. And what a bitter pill for Wood's ghost, since the only superlative he ever earned has been snatched away by an even crazier usurper. The differences are considerable, though. Beyond his staggering ineptitude, Wood was mainly hampered by a budget barely adequate to running a lemonade...

The Missing Piece in Coverage of Texas Evolution Controversies

Once again, there's a dust-up going on over whether students in Texas should be taught about evolution in science class, or whether they should instead be told the lie that there is a scientific "controversy" about whether evolution has taken place, or perhaps be told nothing at all about it, or be told the biblical version of creation. But beyond the obvious, there's something bugging me about this. The current round is about science textbooks, and there's a story you've heard before, which goes like this: Texas is a huge market for textbooks, so big that whatever textbooks get bought by Texas can affect the whole country. The Texas Board of Education appoints reviewers to recommend changes to proposed textbooks, and among these reviewers are a host of young-earth creationists who demand that discussion of evolution portray it as some kind of nutty idea with no empirical support. Then the textbooks get changed in this way, making students across the country just a little dumber. All...

The Conversation: What’s the Best Way to Die?

AP Images/J PAT CARTER W hat does it mean to have a good death? Few people long to spend their last hours with their bodies stuck full of tubes, listening to the hum of high-tech equipment under fluorescent lights. Yet every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans die in hospitals, where doctors’ aim is to cure at all costs, using expensive and often invasive treatments to prolong their patients’ lives by days, weeks, or months. For the past two decades, Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon and bioethicist at the Yale School of Medicine, has been advocating for a dramatic change in our attitudes toward death. In his 1994 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter , he argued for an approach to death that emphasizes dignity above treatment. How We Die spent months on the best-seller lists and won the National Book Award. But in the ensuing years, Americans’ zeal to stave off the inevitable seems to have grown rather than diminished, leaving too many caregivers and family members to...