Robert Caro began researching this series of books in 1976, the year I was born. The scope and ambition of these books do more than cast long shadows,...moreRobert Caro began researching this series of books in 1976, the year I was born. The scope and ambition of these books do more than cast long shadows, they fill the sky. Their success rests on several factors, including exhaustive research, but ultimately, they are so impressive primarily because their author is as good a storyteller as any novelist working today.
Caro is the unrivaled master of weaving the minutia into a grand tapestry. He never fails to set the historical stage for each moment of Johnson's career, and that's never more important than it is in the year's covered in this book -- 1960 to 1964 -- the years he lost to John F. Kennedy in the Democratic primary, became his running mate in the 1960 general election, and then assumed power upon Kennedy's assassination in 1963. It's at that moment, the moment of the assassination, that this book truly hits its stride.
Johnson took over under unprecedented circumstances, in more ways than one, and Caro masterfully lays that out for the reader. Not only was he present at the time of Kennedy's death, Kennedy was murdered in his home state. At the time of the assassination, rumors were flying that Johnson -- loathed by Robert Kennedy and never trusted or admired by most Kennedy staffers -- was to be dropped from the ticket in 1964. Additionally, the world was already living in a state of constant fear of nuclear war, a war that had been narrowly averted just a year prior during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Johnson had to reassure not only the US but the world that he was a competent leader. To do so, he had to convince men who had never liked him, who had called him "Rufus Cornpone" behind his back, to work for him as they had for Kennedy. He had to do all of this while still being respectful of the Kennedy family and the dead president's legacy. And he had to immediately start thinking of the looming election, in which Robert Kennedy might be waiting to take the nomination from him and assume his brother's place atop the government.
That Johnson was able to do all of these things was a testament to his intelligence and his will. Caro gives this period of Johnson's life room to breathe on the page, spending some 150+ pages on about two months, from late November 1963 to February 1964, when Johnson finally brought the Civil Rights Bill that would become the most positive part of his legacy, to the Senate floor.
Balancing the need to delve into details -- who was on Air Force One that night in Dallas, who did Johnson first call to discuss the Oath of the Office, who were the congressman in the rules committee that threatened to destroy the Civil Rights Bill -- with the desire to properly frame the moment is what makes this yet another master work from Robert A. Caro. To step back and to view the entire series--more than 3,000 pages so far--is breathtaking. (less)
This is a collection of pieces from Grantland, so if you're looking for material you wouldn't find on the site, you're out of luck. That being said, w...moreThis is a collection of pieces from Grantland, so if you're looking for material you wouldn't find on the site, you're out of luck. That being said, what you will find is a collection of some of their better pieces and some beautiful, beautiful design work. The cover of the book looks like a basketball. At first, I was like "This will be lame," but holding it in my hands, I have to say, it's a real pleasure of an object.
My favorite pieces from this:
* Colson Whitehead's "Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia." The author plays in the World Series of Poker and writes about the game as the soul-crushing, numbing experience it can be. Beautiful, hilarious prose and some true insights on life, as well as gambling. Simply the best thing I read this year, in any form.
* Michael Schur and Nate DiMeo watch the World Cup of Cricket. Schur created Parks & Recreation (and used to run the brilliant, hilarious Fire Joe Morgan), and the observations on cricket from a non-fan's perspective are great.
* Bill Simmon's on Hoosiers. I go back and forth on Bill Simmons, but this piece has some great stuff, like pointing out what a terrible tactician Gene Hackman is in this movie, or how many points Jimmy Chitwood must have scored in the state final.
I think the book borrows a little of its design from Free Darko, but I'm willing to look past that and say that this is book well worth reading and owning.(less)
This is how it goes for me with cookbooks: I get them, I make a few things from them, I love them...and I forget to review them on Goodreads. I need t...moreThis is how it goes for me with cookbooks: I get them, I make a few things from them, I love them...and I forget to review them on Goodreads. I need to change that.
I've made several recipes from this book, and it has never steered me wrong. On Friday, I made Pan-fried Duck Breasts, and that meal was so good, so simple, and so easy to make, that I had to come here and write a review of it. You think of high-end French cuisine, and you think of sauces and complexity, etc. But I've found that the strength of this book is its utter simplicity. The duck breast recipe had five ingredients -- duck, oil, raspberry vinegar, pepper, and sea salt. It took me maybe 20 minutes, from start to finish, to make. And it was mind-expanding.
This book, without going overboard, exploded my brain. In one of my progress updates, I said it was like an album where every song is perfect and the...moreThis book, without going overboard, exploded my brain. In one of my progress updates, I said it was like an album where every song is perfect and the sequencing is exactly right. And that's still how I feel about it. The scope of this collection kept telescoping out as I was reading it. At first, it seemed like a book about the American South, and the role it plays in both the author's life and that of America today, but as I read on, it expanded. It was about America, really--where it's at now and where it had been and a little bit of where it might be headed.
Every essay in the book is a marvel on its own. While I wasn't as fascinated by the Rafinesque piece in the middle of the book (If this were an album, that piece would be the 20 minute long epic that anchors it), but I admired the style. My favorite essays were "Feet in Smoke," about Sullivan's brother after a near-death experience, and "Getting Down to What's Really Real," about the surreal (ha!) life of Real World alumni who are paid to go clubbing and partying. I once wrote an essay of my own about reality TV, and I was absolutely humbled by Sullivan's take on it. (Though mine is still pretty funny, I think. And I didn't interview anyone for it, so, you know...)
If you haven't read Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, this is a great introduction to an immensely talented author, one with incredible range. If you have read Blood Horses, then there's no introduction needed. You already know what a badass Sullivan is. (less)
You don't get to choose where you're from. Fate puts you where it pleases, and that's that. I didn't choose to grow up in Upstate, to think that sausa...moreYou don't get to choose where you're from. Fate puts you where it pleases, and that's that. I didn't choose to grow up in Upstate, to think that sausage and peppers were a national delicacy. I could've been born two streets over, where I would've learned to skate as soon as I could walk. Instead, I rode the bus an hour to podunk farming towns like Camden and Holland Patent to play basketball in decrepit gyms against thick farm boys whose shorts were too tight and who sweated too much. All those pasty moon-faced girls in the crowd, close enough they could trip you as you ran past.
I didn't choose to grow up trudging through the three feet of snow, down the steep icy hill on which my dad insisted on parking, to watch Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly play in the Carrier Dome. It was what I'd always known, like Cosmos Pizza and Eerie Boulevard and away games at New Hartford. It was simply home.
Scott Raab didn't choose to be from Cleveland anymore than he chose his mother or father. He didn't set out to know the suffering of the Cleveland fan, he was born into it. But once born a Clevelander, Raab embraced it. He witnessed the last triumphant moment in Cleveland sports, the 1964 NFL Championship Game, and he's not forgotten it, carrying the ticket stub of the game as a talisman of sorts, a charm meant to bring forth another championship.
The man who was supposed to deliver that championship was LeBron James. James was born in Akron, and like us all, he didn't choose that. But unlike Raab and other decent people in the world, James didn't respect that fact. He didn't understand that where you're from, in a lot of ways, is who you are. You can go where you want to go and do what you want to do, but you can't change that fact. It sticks.
Maybe it started, as Raab says, when he wore that Yankee hat to the Indians' playoff game. Maybe it started years before that, when he chose to root for not just the Yankees, but Duke and the Cowboys, as well (And I'd guess that if he didn't play in the NBA, he'd root for the Lakers, too). Whenever it started, it reached its apotheosis with "The Decision," the moment LeBron decided to turn his back on his hometown, and in the process, many of the rest of us, as well.
No, LeBron James should've known better. And that's what makes this book, this rage-fueled ride, so satisfying. Raab takes him to task for 300 plus pages, pointing out his every shortcoming, his every arrogant flaw. If this sounds unfair, consider that James set himself up for this with his actions, and then doubled-down on that when he fired off his ill-considered "Tomorrow, they have to live their lives with all their problems." Translation: I'm rich, so you can suck it, nothing bothers me. This book is one fan's way of saying "Go fuck yourself" to that.
It's also a brilliant meditation on the things we don't choose -- home, family, ancestry. It has hilarious moments, it has heartbreaking passages. It's raw and visceral as few books are, and as I said on The Millions earlier this month, it's the best book about sports fandom since A Fan's Notes.
As an addendum: I read a lot of books on my phone this year, and holding this book in my hands, feeling its pages and its smooth cover in my hands as I read it on the bus was such a joy. That it had a provocative title and a bunch of Star of Davids on the cover was a bonus -- lots of odd looks on the bus. In a year when I succumbed to the conveniences of digital reading, this book, as well as the Grantland Quarterly and The Art of Fielding, have reminded me that -- cliche though it may be -- I still really do love the feel of books, that holding the object in my hands is a sensation unto itself.(less)
I really enjoyed this book. Perhaps that's because I wear straight-leg dark wash jeans and use Bumble and Bumble hair product (both endorsed by Mindy...moreI really enjoyed this book. Perhaps that's because I wear straight-leg dark wash jeans and use Bumble and Bumble hair product (both endorsed by Mindy Kaling). Or perhaps it's because it's a smart book of comic essays. Probably a little of both.
My favorite essay, I think, is the titular essay, about her high school posse of friends and the moment she knew she was drifting away from them. If you can't relate to that essay, I suspect you went to one of those boarding schools in Switzerland. with the oil heirs. And as such, I hate you. (Just kidding. Loan me some money!)
I also really loved her take on romantic comedies. I love to sit with my wife and watch romantic comedies and just think about how ridiculous they are. My favorites are movies made in the last three years that portray the magazine or book business in a crazy glamorous light. Oh yes, I'm sure the associate editor at that publishing house has a 1,400 square foot office with a view of Central Park. There's no way she tends bar to pay her bills and lives in Jersey City, right?
There are plenty of great insider-y things in this book. If you're a fan of The Office, you'll love the behind the scenes glimpses of the writing room. The Saturday Night Live chapter is not to be missed. And I really loved hearing about the Matt & Ben play, which I'd never heard of, and which I now really want to see. Can someone lend me a DVD?
"Now I see that your dystopia is more of a Fruitopia."
Ready Player One had a lot of trouble getting on its feet. The first 100 pages are 99% summary,...more"Now I see that your dystopia is more of a Fruitopia."
Ready Player One had a lot of trouble getting on its feet. The first 100 pages are 99% summary, much of it explaining how the world of the book works, what its rules are, and what the stakes are. This made it difficult to create John Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream" that I'm always hoping for in fiction. Every time I wanted to get into the story, to be carried away by it, the narrator would stop to explain how some arcane rule of the virtual reality world worked. The best speculative fiction manages to convey the nature of its world without belaboring how it came to be. This book couldn't pull that off. It was also set in that nebulous time "the not too distant future." Companies like Ebay and YouTube continue to exist, but there's no real mention of Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads (Seriously, we couldn't have worked in a Goodreads reference once? "I went to Goodreads and did a quick search of my Halliday-Canon shelf." Or something like that?), or AT&T, GE, etc. Difficult to pull that off. Couple with some fairly flat and sometimes even stock characters (An aside: Am I the only one who always thinks of that Metallica documentary whenever I use the word "stock?" "It's just stock, man." Okay then.) and the result is a book that feels like it doesn't fully respect the reader.
That being said, once it got up and running, it was a fun and sometimes very clever story. There are a couple of satisfying twists, including one that seems to argue the importance of anonymity without being too over the top about it (Other themes -- such as the danger of corporate monoculture -- were significantly less subtle). And there are a bajillion pop culture references from the 70s and 80s. Again, when the author wasn't taking the time to explain the reference, these were pretty great (I liked catching "Setec Astronomy" a reference to the bitchin' Robert Redford movie Sneakers, part of Redford's Anti-Technology Cycle), but too often, he had to completely unpack the reference for anyone who might have slept through the 1980s (And for those who somehow managed to avoid the band Rush until this book, I envy you. Tell me your secret.). Imagine a Woody Allen movie where instead of just making a joke about Marshall McLuhan, he stopped to explain to everyone exactly who Marshall McLuhan was. It got tedious.
I was happy that the book forwarded the notion that it's tech corporations -- rather than the federal government -- that represent the greatest risk to American's freedom, though I also have a few issues with the way this played out in the book. For instance, fairly early on, there's a discussion between Parzival or whatever his name is and Art3mis about what they'll do if and when they win the hundreds of billions of dollars that are at stake. Parzival will give up on humanity while Art3mis will try to save it. Fine. Okay. I doubt there was a single reader who doubted how the book would end at this point, but whatever. What I found myself wondering was "If this James Halliday guy was such a righteous dude, why didn't he do something to save humanity? Or, failing that, why didn't he at least come up with a succession plan that did something other than put his fortune and company (and, in a weird way, all of civilization, at risk?" It seemed to me that James Halliday, genius though he may have been, was actually kind of a dick. It's like, I know you're afraid of girls and everything, but pull your shit together and come up with a legally structured will that will stop a rapacious corporation from seizing control of your legacy. Or don't, you know. It's a free country. Sort of. The book seemed more than a little bit enraptured with the idea of the tech icon -- Jobs, Gates, Bezos (An aside: Whenever I think of Jeff Bezos, I say his name like Conan O'Brien used to say John Stamos' name. "BEZOS!") -- the maverick genius who can do no wrong. I felt a little bit about the book like I did after Inception, where they have all this cool high-stakes dream-hopping but the result is that one corporation gets to beat another one. Well, la-di-da.
In the end, this is a fun book, but I wanted it to be more nuanced, more subtle, and more complex. It reminded me a bit of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, though I greatly preferred that book. It suffered from some of the same over-explanation, but since it was explaining things like proxy servers rather than Ladyhawke, I was somehow okay with it.
To end on a positive note, this book did make me want to play some old 8-bit video games. I was always more into sports games, so it's not quite the same (though if you know of a place I can play RBI Baseball online, I'll be forever in your debt). Here's a fun anecdote from my youth. The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked at a video store. In addition to renting video cassettes (DVDs were not yet invented, I don't think), we also had a large selection of video games. One day, a guy came in with an older woman and was browsing the video games. I assumed they were mother and son, but who knows (I have a big thing for Patricia Clarkson, so...don't judge). Anyway, they came up to the register and his mom picked up an NES game (not the Super Nintendo, but the original Nintendo system, which was already a relic). I think it was Castlevania, but I'm not sure. "Why don't you get this one?" she asked. He scoffed -- literally made that sound that is a scoff! -- and said, "Mom? Hello? 8-bit action? I don't think so. I play on a Sega Genesis gaming system." I wonder if that guy looks back at himself now and is like "You fool! That was only 32-bit action!" I hope so, in a way. I also hope he finds this book, because he would totally dig it.(less)
This is as good a behind-the-scenes for contemporary publishing as I've read. I'm a Keith Gessen fan. I think he can really turn a phrase, but more im...moreThis is as good a behind-the-scenes for contemporary publishing as I've read. I'm a Keith Gessen fan. I think he can really turn a phrase, but more importantly for a work like this, he has a brain that can handle the complex web of relationships, connections, and constituencies involved in producing a book like The Art of Fielding.
Highly recommended for anyone who wants an entertaining and yet still thorough account of the literary side of publishing.
One note: There's so much focus on the money The Art of Fielding made, and I would like to recommend that anyone who reads this also read Gessen's excellent "Money" as a kind of antidote. I will be chased off the site for saying this, maybe, but I don't really think $650,000 is that much money -- on a per-hour basis -- for the work that went into the book. That's not to say that the publisher should've paid more, but merely that this does not make Chad Harbach overpaid in any way shape or form. For more on the realities of book advances (even biggish ones), also check out Emily Gould's "More than $1K Worth of Clothes I'll Never Wear Again."(less)
Does it ever seem to you like everything sucks? Not just your own life -- with its minor setbacks and Pyrrhic victories -- but the entire existence of...moreDoes it ever seem to you like everything sucks? Not just your own life -- with its minor setbacks and Pyrrhic victories -- but the entire existence of mankind. You know, all of humanity? I think that sometimes. When I'm filling up my car with gas, for instance, and I see a guy wearing scarves as shoes. And then later that day, the person in front of me orders a coffee drink with more than two modifiers (half-caff and no foam and part-skim). Or whenever I accidentally listen to sports talk radio for more than ten minutes. I'll sit there in my car, listening to that ad for Dockers and think, "When all of this is over, when the world comes apart and we're back in the streets chucking rocks, I'll throw a freakin' party."
But there are also moments -- tiny triumphs or glimpses of beauty -- that make me think I'll really miss this life when I'm grilling a squirrel in the bombed-out husk of an Albertson's. I'll miss my family, of course, if they don't make it through The Troubles, that should go without saying. But I'll also long for Google Maps and continuously-hopped IPAs and raw denim jeans and all the other accoutrements of modern American life.
Which brings me to Zone One. Zone One is a novel about zombie-like creatures called 'Skels,' a plague of which has destroyed human civilization at some point in the near future. As the plague goes into remission, the survivors begin putting the pieces back together, starting with lower Manhattan, where the military has walled off a segment of the island. Sweeper teams -- civilians with assault rifles -- comb through the city killing any remaining skels and stragglers (half-skel creatures that lurk about the world in a frozen state of unconsciousness). Our hero, Marc Spitz, works with one such sweeper team, and it's through his eyes that we learn about the end of the world and its potential rebirth.
But Zone One is really an elegy for the modern world. Marc Spitz and his comrades reminisce frequently about the good old days, the days before "Last Night," the night when all hell broke loose, literally. Marc Spitz says he misses all the same things that everyone missed -- "the free wifi" and whatnot -- and there's the sense that this is what he misses, the conveniences of life. But its in the moments when he makes a fleeting connection with another person that the book really delivers. In a world where 95% of the people are dead (or worse), finding another person you can love is a rare and precious moment. Of course, the same is true in a world without zombies. And that's sort of the point of Zone One.
Zone One is both achingly, heartbreakingly sad, but also laugh out loud funny (LOL, as they used to say, before the fall). Its sentences will carry you along more than its story, and you can't miss the subtle longing that seeps through every page. It seems to be saying "This place we're living now? This life? It could be so much worse." This is the rare novel that simultaneously critiques the world as we know it today and reaffirms its existence. That it does so while inhabiting the body of a zombie novel is, I think, just another of its many miracles. (less)