Books

"Double Down" Was Written for Morning Joe—Not Posterity

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

The week Game Change was published in early 2010 coincided with my own version of journalistic martyrdom—watching my brain cells peel off like dandruff from enduring 60 hours of cable TV news in a week. From Morning Joe to Hardball to commercials for LifeLock, the authors of Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann were inescapable. Every time I switched channels, Halperin and Heilemann materialized peddling another nugget about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton from their book on the 2008 campaign. The Game Change publicity machine so dominated cable TV news during that first week of selling in 2010 that I could have read the book in the time I spent hearing about it.

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.

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

If, 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.”

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.

Bretton Woods Revisited

AP Images

On 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.

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.

Dave Eggers Is Worried about America

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

 

AP Images/Tina Fineberg

In 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.”

Mailer's Mark

AP Images/Kathy Willens

It 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.

Jezebel Grew Up

Nikola Tamindzic

The 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.”

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.

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."

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 Conflicted Gay Pioneer

AP Images/Ron Frehm

When 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.”

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

"The 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 Missing Piece in Coverage of Texas Evolution Controversies

Flickr/timuiuc

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.

Pages