Weekend Bookchat

October 4, 2008

With “Banned Books Week” only just over, it’s appropriate to go back to 1939 and the almighty ruckus John Steinbeck raised with the publication of his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Hailed as a masterpiece across the country, the bestselling novel also enraged the California farmers — particularly those in Kern County, where Steinbeck’s Okie family, the Joads, arrived in search of work only to find exploitation, squalor and violence. Rick Wartzman chronicles the resulting wave of book burning and condemnation in his new book Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.

Not only does Wartzman introduce us to the thuggish landowners led by W.B. “Bill” Camp, he also showcases the bravery of Gretchen Knief, a local librarian who stood up for the book and opposed measures to ban it from library shelves. Here’s a recent radio interview with Wartzman. Here are reviews of Obscene in the Extreme from Mother Jones, WaPo and Huntington News.

And here is a “digested read” of another oft-banned Steinbeck title, Of Mice and Men, as conceived by John Crace.

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Fans of The Godfather, Part II probably have a vague idea that Cuba was used as a playground and offshore bank by mobsters in the 1950s. The fascinating details of how the Mob essentially bought itself an island with the complicity of a Cuban strongman, and then lost it to the revolution led by Fidel Castro, are revealed in Havana Nocturne, a fascinating new book by crime historian T.J. English. There’s plenty of salacious stuff about threesomes with John F. Kennedy and a pair of hookers, but there’s also plenty of convincing evidence that the Mob’s use of Havana as a giant casino and money-laundering operation, combined with the greed of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, fueled rage throughout Cuba that helped spark Castro’s revolution. Here’s a Daily Show interview with English and a Writer’s Voice podcast.

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Four different writers, four different books, and at least that many different versions of John McCain, all tailored by the man himself to win the favor of Republican voters. Which is the real John McCain? Does anyone know? And at this late date, does it really matter?

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Juan Cole, a scholar and expert on the Middle East whose blog Informed Comment is a daily must-read, is also the author of Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East, an account of the French attempt to conquer Egypt in 1798. The paperback is just out, and critics have saluted the book’s portrayal of a great Western power led by war-minded men who thought they could simply walk in and take over an Arab country without much trouble. Cole doesn’t lean on the parallels between Napoleon’s imperial adventure and an equally delusional Middle East venture pushed by a diminutive ruler with an Alexander the Great complex, but somehow the parallels just seem to be there anyway.

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A superb new history book illuminates the relationship between Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine. How anti-vaccination quackery endangers the health of children — and adds to the burdens of coping with autism.  At last, the truth can be told: the true identity of Humpty Dumpty.

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