Weekend Bookchat

November 22, 2008

You know those stories about Sarah Palin getting ready to close a $7 million book deal? You might want to take them with a couple of wheelbarrows full of salt, according to Fishbowl LA:

Uhm, her appeal is not to the ‘female reading public’ – it’s to the male ‘I dig chicks that are hot and don’t make me feel like a dumb ass’ loving segment of the population.

Our sister blog GalleyCat’s Ron Hogan says,”Notice that this source said “huge appeal to a segment,” not “appeal to a huge segment.”

Good point. We say women who actually read books think she’s a dink.

Speaking of which, we have two copies of Dan Quayle‘s book “Worth Fighting For” on our desk. One for us. One for a gift. We got it in the one dollar bin…and he actually won an election.

Litblog GalleyCat follows up with some hard numbers:

There is, absolutely, a market for a Sarah Palin book, and somebody will pick up on that at some point—the only question is whether that publisher is really willing to spend $7 million on an author whose approval ratings got worse the more the public got to know her.

Nobody asked us, of course, but beyond the three obvious suspects in New York City—Sentinel, Crown Forum, and Threshold—we’d suspect that Palin’s best chance for a book deal might come from the Christian publishing market, which would no doubt welcome a memoir about how Palin’s faith and family led her to and guided her through her historic moment in the spotlight… but we can’t remember when any publisher there paid that much money for a single book.

Meanwhile, Erica Heller considers these stories of publishers panning for winger gold and draws some unflattering comparisons between the well-earned fame of her father Joseph Heller, who used literary talent and hard work to produce Catch-22, and the freak show version represented by Palin and Joe the Mumbler:

Today, of all the things I am most proud of about my father’s writing, it is his scathing indictment of the madness and stupidity of war, government and big business, all recounted in such passionate and pitiless detail, that still resonate resoundingly.

And now, onto that illustrious stage of authors, along with Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones and the rest of the best of the best, strut authoress and author, Palin and Mr. Plumber, with their books certain to be ghosted by some unsung schnooks, manuscripts that will be comprised mostly, I’m betting, of little more than bragging, lying and recycling some very stale air. For their efforts, they will be awarded gargantuan advances, piles of money that could feed several Third World nations for some time. Or OUR nation, since there are still so many hungry, weary, homeless and wanting. Not all of us are plucked from obscurity and wrapped in Valentino or held up as a poster-child for the working man. Some people have to actually work at it and at times, there is even talent, skill, and a magical, indefinable creative spark magnificently ignited in the process.

Madness and stupidity are, alas, not limited to the arena of war. The publishing world seems to also have stepped in it, as it does from time to time, and will now leave us its grimy footprints to follow, the real Bridge to Nowhere.

On the other hand, judging from the infamous video posted above, there could be a large market for a book of Sarah Palin’s Thanksgiving recipes.

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Barton Gellman wraps up a weeklong discussion about his book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency at TPM Cafe. James Bamford prepares to start a discussion of hisbook The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America at the Firedoglake Book Salon.

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If Barack Obama is reading this book, then there is cause for hope.

Weekend Bookchat

November 15, 2008

Those unfortunate souls who just can’t get enough of the halting, barely coherent and wholly nonsensical thoughts of Joe the Plumber will be delighted to know that The Wurzelbacher has a book coming out. What’s curious is that the literary toilet plunger’s tome is coming out via PearlGate, an operation founded by his co-author. In an era when virtually any subliterate wingnut with name recognition can get a book deal with Regnery or Crown Forum, it’s remarkable to see that somebody who was essentially John McCain’s other running mate has to resort to what amounts to self-publishing. Must be quite a read.

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Helpful readers may want to contact Shelby Steele via his publisher, the Free Press, with suggestions for a new subtitle for the paperback edition of his book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. That’s assuming there is a paperback edition, since Steele is trying to blame the subtitle on commercial pressure from his publisher:

He made it clear that he was the one who slapped the subtitle onto the book — “in about 30 seconds” when Barack Obama was trailing Hillary Rodham Clinton by about 25 percentage points. But, he added, “subtitles are marketing devices — I hate them. I’ve always hated them.”

He said that for “White Guilt,” his book before “A Bound Man,” he tried not to have a subtitle, to no avail. In that case, Mr. Steele went with another provocative subtitle: “How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.”

The editor in chief of the Free Press, Dominick Anfuso, disputed the idea that there was overriding pressure to come up with the most extreme subtitle to sell books. “It is the handful of largely successful books that do that, and that gives the impression that is what we seek,” he said. What publishers want, he said, are “good titles and good subtitles. Subtitles can make best sellers, but they don’t have to be provocative to do that. It is a package. They go together.”

Interestingly, Steele says that “I stand by every word of the analysis — what is between the covers of the book,” even though his thesis — that Obama’s candidacy was doomed by the conflicting roles he was playing in the eyes of black and white voters — was never all that persuasive to begin with, and became even more ridiculous as Obama swept previously rock-solid red states into the blue column.

By the way, I wonder how Hugh Hewitt’s book proposal is coming along.

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Crooked Timber offers a timely consumer warning to unwary readers who, on the basis of her having published a book about the Depression, might incorrectly believe that former Wall Street Journal editorialist Amity Shlaes might be something more than an ax-grinding wingnut. One of the site’s alert uniformed attendants cuts to the chase: “The main point that needs to be hammered home: that Amity Shlaes is an unscrupulous hack.” If you want to read more about Shlaes and her revisionist take on the Depression, here is a review from Slate and another from The New Yorker.

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During the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s, Malcolm X remarked that the South began at the Canadian border? Sweet Land of Liberty follows the course of the civil rights struggle as it played out in the northern U.S. Here’s an excerpt from Michael Wolff’s upcoming biography of Rupert “Daddy Wingbucks” Murdoch. And the Church of Scientology appears to have a penchant for making unflattering books and even poor Amazon reviews disappear.

Weekend Bookchat

November 8, 2008


George W. Bush continues to blaze new trails in the realm of failure. The Squatter-in-Chief’s latest coup is to fail to generate any interest from publishers in bidding for his as-yet unwritten presidential memoirs:

“If I were advising President Bush, given how the public feels about him right now, I think patience would probably be something that I would encourage,” says Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf, which in 2004 released Bill Clinton’s million-selling “My Life.”

Particularly striking is the fact that even Regnery Publishing, the venerable right-wing sausage factory, thinks Bush should hang back and horde his crayons for a more propitious time. Besides, right now dozens of anti-Obama manuscripts are being churned out and Regnery would rather publish those:

“Certainly the longer he waits, the better,” says Marji Ross, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, which is more likely to take on anti-Obama books in the next few years than any praises of Bush.

“There’s a pent-up frustration among conservatives that will focus their attention on a Barack Obama presidency and lead them to buy a lot of books about Barack Obama. But that’s not the kind of emotion that anyone is going to use to turn to reading a memoir by a conservative president.”

Bill Clinton, as you may know, signed a deal for his presidential memoirs and pocketed a $15 million advance only months after leaving office.

“I don’t think Bush can get the kind of money Clinton did if only because the foreign rights interest will be considerably less,” says Jonathan Karp, whose Twelve imprint at the Hachette Book Group USA published “Hard Call,” the latest book by Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

“President Bush is perceived as a unilateral cowboy who didn’t respect other nations. So there’s a shortfall overseas. At the same time, he could still sell a lot of books. Maybe only 30 percent of the public is still behind him, but 30 percent of 300 million people is not a small number.”

Certainly not when they’re bulk-ordering the books.

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Adam O’Riordan praises Barack Obama’s inner poet, while Rob Woodard thinks the quality of Obama’s writing bodes well for his presidency. Meanwhile, Chicago Tribune reporter Naftali Bendavid has written a book about Rahm Emanuel that may help you understand the combative character of Obama’s new chief of staff. And Toni Morrison, one of Obama’s favorite authors, talks about her new novel.

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David Rees, author of Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror 2001-2008, talks to Bat Segundo. Judging from the homicidal anti-Obama chatter in the comments fields of conservative sites, this might be a good time to read Et Tu, Brute? A Short History of Political Murder. How about a book called Political Hypocrisy? And here’s a late-breaking review of the Great Orange Satan’s Taking on the System; Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era.

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Though he turned into an odious crank late in life, Michael Crichton (who died this week at the age of 66) was the master of the Fun Read. William Wharton, aka Albert du Aime — author of the antiwar novels Birdy and A Midnight Clear — has died at 82.

Weekend Bookchat

November 1, 2008

“My epitaph? My epitaph will be, ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat’.” Studs Terkel, author, journalist, actor and radio host, who died Friday at 96.

If it’s an epitaph you want for Studs Terkel, you could also do pretty well with the subtitle of his soon-to-be published and final book: PS: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. Listening closely to people and thinking deeply about what they said were the two best qualities Terkel brought to his work, and the fact that he never stopped thinking about what he’d learned made him a literary resource of continuing, ever-renewing value.

His appreciation of America’s best qualities was grounded in his lifelong devotion to liberalism and progressive politics:

“This is ironic. I’m not the one was has Alzheimer’s. It’s the country that has Alzheimer’s. There was a survey the other day showing that most people think our best president was Reagan. Not Abraham Lincoln. FDR came in 10th. People don’t pay attention any more. They don’t read the news.” Studs Terkel, 93, talking to fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert.

My love and admiration for Terkel’s work began in 1972 when I used some paper route money to buy his book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do off the remainder table at Schiller’s Books in the Garden State Plaza. The book was like a choral work scored by Aaron Copland in his high populist mode: bookbinders, construction workers, cab drivers and prostitutes telling their stories, with Terkel serving as conductor and interlocutor. The book has grim and even upsetting passages, but the feeling it leaves behind can only be described as exaltation. Like most of Terkel’s work, it also demonstrates that the finest, most revealing interviews are always conversations.

Terkel was an intellectual omnivore: his appetite for recording experience was of a piece with his appreciation for all sorts of music and literature. He was one of the few radio hosts who actually read and thought about his guests’ work before a show. Even Bob Dylan, who early in his career made a hobby of running head-games with interviewers, played it straight when he sat with Terkel in 1963 and the resulting talk (transcribed in And They All Sang and posted in this collection of Terkel’s favorite interviews) has long been prized by Dylan bootleg collectors. This six-disc collection covering highlights of interviews from the 1950s through the 1990s can give you a taste of Terkel at his best.

The Chicago Historical Society has a huge online archive of recordings grouped around Terkel’s major books: Division Street, Hard Times, The Good War and Talking to Myself. In light of the McCain campaign’s heavy reliance on racial dogwhistle appeals and grubby stereotypes, this passage from his 1992 book Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession seems particularly apt:

“‘I went through a bad time,’ recalls a fireman’s wife. ‘I felt like being white middle-class had a stigma to it. Everything was our fault. Every time I turned on the TV, it would be constant trying to send me on a guilt trip because I had a decent life. I was sick of people making the connotation that because I was raising a good family, I was responsible for the ills of the world. The white middle class was getting a bum rap. Even when I went to church, I was angry.'”

“‘What I found fascinating is the tragically humorous condition of northern whites. The civil rights movement made the white ethnic groups more democratic. The Poles, Jews, Italians, and Irish could all get together in their hostility to the blacks. It has become another aspect of the democratic creed. Being white in America made them feel equal to all other whites, as long as the black man was down below.'”

“‘I think you become an adult when you reach a point where you don’t need anyone underneath you. When you can look at yourself and say, “I’m okay the way I am.” One of the things that keeps my class of people from having any vision is race hatred. You’re so busy hating somebody else, you’re not going to realize how beautiful you are and how much you destroy all that ‘s good in the world.'”

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Jane Mayer’s magisterial work The Dark Side: The Inside Story on How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals heads a list of books about the Bush administration, and the role played by Dick Cheney in its degradation of America’s good name, reviewed by David Bromwich.

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The GOP smear merchants have made Rashid Khalidi into a top selling author! Congratulations!

Weekend Bookchat

October 18, 2008

Frank Schaeffer knows the Evangelical Christian culture from the inside: his father, Francis Schaeffer, was in his words “Evangelical royalty” and a frequent guest at the White House during the Ford, Reagan and Bush I eras. He eventually broke with his father’s view of Christianity for reasons he explains in  Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.

Last week, Schaeffer published an op-ed piece calling out McCain and Palin for their hatemongering and open encouragement of the GOP lunatic fringe. He talks about that piece, and his new book, in the clips posted here.

Schaeffer is the author of several books, notably Baby Jack, a novel about the family of a Marine killed in Iraq, and the acclaimed “Calvin Becker Trilogy” of novels about a young man coming of age in a fundamentalist family. Read more about him here.

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Congratulations once again to Paul Krugman, the first blogger to win a Nobel Prize! He also seems to know a thing or two about economics. For your one-stop roundup of all things Krugmanesque, turn to Marginal Revolution and this excellent rundown of links concerning the Nobel laureate’s many books.

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This week was rich in schadenfreude for progressives, but one of the tastier morsels was served up by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, who pretty much wiped the floor with winger Byron York when the National Review hack tried to blame dark-skinned people for the current financial crisis. Taibbi recently published his first book, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, and . . . well, you know Christmas is just around the corner. Just saying.

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An interview with historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. A review of a book collecting some of the late Charles Bukowski’s essays. Orhan Pamuk on booksellers and literary culture in Turkey.

Weekend Bookchat

October 11, 2008

It’s been a while since we’ve seen an American presidential candidate whose own writing could stand comparison with one of America’s greatest authors, but this moving and illuminating essay in the New York Review of Books puts Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father side by side with James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and so doing finds the two books complementing and reinforcing each other:

Although Obama mentions in passing in Dreams from My Father that he had read Baldwin when he was a young community activist in Chicago, there is no hint in the book that he modeled his own story in any way on Baldwin’s work. In both of their versions of who they became in America and how, there are considerable similarities and shared key moments not because Obama was using Baldwin as a template or an example, but because the same hurdles and similar circumstances and the same moments of truth actually occurred almost naturally for both of them.

Baldwin and Obama, although in different ways, experienced the church and intense religious feeling as key elements in their lives. They both traveled and discovered while abroad, almost as a shock, an essential American identity for themselves while in the company of non-Americans who were black. They both came to see, in a time of bitter political division, some shared values with the other side. They both used eloquence with an exquisite, religious fervor.

As Northerners, they both were shocked by the South. They both had to face up to the anger, the rage, which lay within them, and everyone like them, as a way of taking the poison out of themselves. It is almost as though, in their search for power — Baldwin becoming the finest American prose stylist of his generation, Obama the first black nominee for president of the United States — they would both have to gain wisdom, both bitter and sweet, at the same fount, since no other fount was available. Their story is in some ways the same story because it could hardly have been otherwise.

Obama and Baldwin may have spent their lives neutralizing the poisons that racism has brewed within them, but Obama’s opponent in the presidential race is frankly trying to exploit those same poisons and make them even more virulent. Read the NYRB essay and you’ll gain an understanding of why Obama seems to grow in stature and character each day while John McCain dwindles with each shabby lie and gross smear issuing from his campaign. The Republicans have spent decades manipulating racial hatred, but they have no experience in dealing with someone who has worked his way up in the face of those hatreds and learned how to neutralize them. Obama’s life has been leading up to this in ways few race-baiting wingers can even begin to understand.

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PUBLISHING NOTES: Looks like conservative hack Hugh Hewitt got a little ahead of himself with the title of his proposed book on the McCain-Palin campaign. And see how an online hissy-fit at wingerblog Red State resulted in a brief annoyance for a book publicist, and increased sales for a computer handbook.

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Jessica Valenti, executive editor of the excellent blog Feministing, is this close to submitting the manuscript for her next book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, but the fact that the book isn’t even out yet hasn’t stopped wingerbloggers from attacking it. One poor clown claims to have checked the book out already, even though the book won’t exist in published form for another several months. While we wait for The Purity Myth to hit the shelves, let’s catch up on Valenti’s other books: He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, and Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. In a similar vein, the history of the religious right’s distortion of sex education and exploitation of sexual fears is examined in Dagmar Herzog’s new book Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics.

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David Swanson wants to tell you about a book you might want to read after the presidential election.

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.