Sunday Bookchat

August 16, 2008

The credibility of the publishing industry — or Simon and Schuster, at any rate — may have just become one of the last and most lasting casualties of the Bush administration and wingnut conservatism.

Readers who regularly consult the New York Times bestseller lists may wonder how, in a year when the failures of conservatism have poisoned the Republican Party’s image and Barack Obama has stayed ahead of John McCain throughout the campaign, a shoddy smear job against Obama can debut at the top of the nonfiction list. The answer, of course, lies in that little dagger beside the listing, which indicates bulk orders of the tome have been reported. In other words, the bestseller list has been gamed. This smoke-and-mirrors achievement is then hailed by other hacks such as John Podhoretz as evidence of “something potentially significant.”

Since the book is being flogged by every right-wing squawker within grunting distance of a microphone, there’s no doubt that some of the book’s sales are genuine — there are plenty of extra Y-chromosome types ready to drag their knuckles to the bookstores for the latest piece of conservative troll-bait. But to leap to the top of the list takes some pushing. The obvious goal is to create the impression that the book is ignoting a natinoal debate, and create the illusion that its author –Jerome Corsi, a greasy weasel so sleazy that even some conservatives can’t stomach him — is an honest writer and researcher.

It’s true, as Greg Mitchell points out, that the mass-market media have been a lot more aggressive in disputing Corsi’s nonsense than they were four years ago, when Corsi co-wrote Unfit for Command, the centerpiece of the slime-boat attack on John Kerry. But why is he getting the attention in the first place? His utter inability to defend his own work is quite clear.

Unfit for Command was published by Regnery, the pipeline of choice for most right-wing effluent. The anti-Obama book is published by Simon and Schuster, previously known as a respectable publishing house, which hired Republican strategist Mary Matalin to go panning for the same wingnut gold Doubleday has turned up with such monumental works as Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home. And so a once great publishing house gets into the business of selling bogus books full of phony facts, and if doing so means poisoning the well of public discourse, that’s fine by them.

Simon and Schuster may not worry about its own credibility, but why  the New York Times is willing to let this transparent fraud continue is beyond me. The promotion of phony bestsellers can only diminish the credibility of the Times list. Corsi’s book should be removed.

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Chances are, you never heard of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who died last week. Here is where you can find out more about one of the great Arab poets of our day, and here is where you can start catching up on what you missed.

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The staff of the PBS series Bill Moyers Journal have come up with a list of 10 books that will help you “Be a More Engaged Citizen” during this election season. Some have been covered in this column; others, such as William Greider’s The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, should have been and I’m happy to be able to address the omission. If the dog days of August have you feeling a little vacant, these books will get your brain humming again — along with your sense of mission.

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Four years ago, Wall Street Journal correspondent  Farnaz Fassihi wrote an e-mail to her friends about the disastrous conditions of life in Iraq as a consequence of Bush’s invasion. The e-mail was leaked to journalists and bloggers and quickly became a sensation. In Fassihi’s upcoming book Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq, she expands on what she has seen:

In the foreword, Fassihi promises that the book offers a look at what it was like to be a young, female reporter covering this war. It does all of that and more, chronicling her day-to-day life, friendships, dangerous assignments and disappointments, from her early arrival to her departure in December 2005. The title of one section says a lot: “If They See Me With You, They’ll Kill Me.”

Along the way we meet a large cast of Iraqis — Jabbar, Haqqi, and others — some of whom worked for the Journal or Newsweek in translating or transporting jobs. Fassihi later chronicles what happened to many of them, in this way exposing the mass disruptions in all of Iraq. Besides the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died, some four million (about 14% of the population) have had to flee their homes, with half leaving the country altogether. Some of Fassihi’s former friends in Iraq have vanished, leaving no trace of their whereabouts.

In the afterword, written in May 2008, she says that violence has declined after 18 months of the “surge,” but notes: “Five years have passed since the United States led a military invasion into Iraq and George Bush declared a mission accomplished. But America’s proposed goals remain elusive: Iraq’s fragile stability hinges on deals brokered with Sunnis and Shiites. Iraqis caught in the midst of open-ended war struggle to survive.” Her final words: “I keep asking myself: What justifies the enormous costs of this war and the wounds it has inflicted? I am at a loss for an answer. This is the story of war.”

Fassihi’s book comes out next month.

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Random House takes well-deserved heat for canceling The Jewel of Medina, a novel narrated by a wife of the Prophet Mohammad. Jeff VanderMeer gets a new book column at the HuffPo. Life (at least, the John Edwards campaign) imitates bad art. Hanif Kureishi gets some long overdue attention for novels such as The Black Album and scripts for films such as My Son the Fanatic and My Beautiful Laundrette.

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Ron Suskind’s new book The Way of the World has already been touted here, but it wouldn’t be right to end without noting that some of the book’s most explosive revelations — notably the charge that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a letter “proving” a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda — have spurred an investogation led by Rep. John Conyers. Amy Goodman devoted two full days of Democracy Now to an interview with Suskind. This YouTube clip will give you a taste, but for the full conversation and a transcript, go here and here.


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