Books

Rebecca Mead Gets Lost in "Middlemarch"

A new literary memoir is proof that sometimes, you really can love George Eliot too much.

I n an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago , the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch , much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.” Rebecca Mead is clearly that “certain kind” of woman. Growing up in coastal England, Mead, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, encountered Middlemarch in her teens and was smitten. “I loved Middlemarch , and I loved being the kind of person who loved it,” she writes in her new work of literary memoir, My Life in Middlemarch . “It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have to read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written.” Little bubbles of excitement about Mead’s book began floating around the Internet last fall, when the advance copies were sent...

Stevie Sings for Martin Luther King

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
I f we ignore 1979’s soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants (though it featured “Send One Your Love,” 28 on the Billboard R&B chart), when Hotter Than July came out in 1980 it marked Stevie Wonder’s first album of newly recorded music since Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. It was his longest break between albums since he started cutting LPs at age 12. Critics don’t hold Hotter Than July in as high a regard as the classic Songs , though it does include an oddly charming imitation of a country singer (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”) and a reggae number inspired by Bob Marley (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”). The album is more important for its historical significance: It marked the beginning of Wonder’s three-year campaign to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The single “Happy Birthday,” which hit No.2 in the UK, states Wonder’s position: “There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration,” he sings before the chorus,...

The Man Who Knew Too Little

A CIA memoir whose emptiness is something to contemplate

R eaders seeking a vicarious adrenaline kick may be disappointed by former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s memoir of his three decades at the agency. In thrillers, the CIA is swashbuckling and sinister, replete with cloaks, daggers, and Technicolor deeds of derring-do. But Rizzo was the agency’s top lawyer, not its top spy, and Company Man —his meandering account of a life in the bureaucratic trenches—portrays not a glamorous world of espionage but a grayish realm of meetings and memos, committee reports and congressional hearings, presidential findings and memoranda of notification. Yet if Rizzo’s memoir falls short of thrilling, it’s often distinctly chilling. As the book’s title proudly proclaims, John Rizzo is the quintessential company man. For 34 years, he provides the agency with the legal assistance he feels its patriotic employees deserve, and he refrains from judgment when confronted with “vexing” issues such as CIA support for Guatemalan death squads or, more...

LBJ and Dallas's Mink Coat Mob

November 4, 1960, four days before the presidential election, LBJ travels to Dallas in a last-ditch effort to carry his home state. He is greeted at his hotel on Commerce Street by a group of angry protesters brought together by Republican Congressman Bruce Alger. The crowd, mostly women, is largely made up of Dallas high society—city leaders’ wives and daughters, former debutantes, and members of the Junior League. Several are wearing fur coats purchased at Nieman Marcus, just down the street. Onlookers joke that the unlikely gathering looks like a mink coat mob. A s the Johnson motorcade speeds into Downtown Dallas, escorted by motorcycle-riding policemen, one of the cops signals to LBJ’s driver. “They’re having a little disturbance at the Baker Hotel,” the policeman says coolly. The convoy decides to avoid the Baker’s front entrance and instead pulls to a side street. Out in front of the hotel, Bruce Alger is whipping up the crowd: If Khrushchev could vote, he’d choose Kennedy-...

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

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
T he 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. It was not until I read all 473 pages of Double Down , the 2012 sequel to Game Change , that I realized I inadvertently had it right in the first place. The campaign books of Halperin and Heilemann are not designed to be read. They are instead written as fodder for cable TV news. Since both authors, whom I’ve...

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

AP Images
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...

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