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Posts Tagged ‘books’

I keep forgetting Oprah Winfrey’s talk show is going off the air in late May. It’s kind of hard to grasp the fact that this ubiquitous cultural icon will end her twenty-five year reign as talk show queen. But she’s leaving and, as observed in a recent New  York Times article, her departure will crush the dreams of hundreds of writers, entrepreneurs and those with inspirational stories.

Being on Oprah is a game-changer, no doubt about it. Ask any writer what happens when Oprah recommends a book on her show or in her glossy and immensely popular magazine. Sales shoot through the roof, advances materialize, phones ring off the hook…you get the picture. Even being scolded by Oprah doesn’t hurt a career; James Frey rebounded nicely from the dressing down she administered for writing a less than truthful memoir, A Million Little Pieces, in 2006. Of course, she later apologized on her show. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

It’s not just writers who hit the jackpot after Oprah. Cooks, decorators, financial advisors, life coaches, and doctors have all gone onto bigger things. Catch Oprah’s eye and your options multiply like magic.  Life is good when you’re a FOO (Friend of Oprah).

The Times article quoted one cultural observer as noting that Oprah is to writers and entrepreneurial types as Johnny Carson used to be to performers. That’s true. As a kid and well through my mid-thirties, I aspired to and then pursued a career in music. I wanted to be on Carson. I didn’t care much about performing; my goal was to be invited to sit by Johnny’s desk, where I’d trade witty banter with him and with Ed McMahon or whoever was sitting on the couch with me. Hey, we all have our dreams.

Johnny Carson retired, and I got out of music to settle down with more realistic expectations; that is, until my book was published. “Maybe you can get on Oprah,” suggested my cousin. “Boy, a spot on Oprah’s show would be great, ” commented my close pal. “Are you going to approach Oprah’s people?” asked my writing partner. I thought back to my work on the section in my book on moral authority and celebrity; I’d used Oprah as my principal example. Had I been too harsh on her?  Did I present a fair and balanced explanation of her place in popular culture? Had I given offense? Would she forgive me?

I began to imagine her reading my slender book, lingering over the chapter in which she was featured, smiling at the tactful way I finessed our disagreement about the merits of The Secret, nodding when she came to my approving comments about her generosity. I pictured myself sitting back in the comfortable-looking armchair she uses for guests on her show as she leaned forward, engaging me earnestly on some point I made about certainty. I wanted her approval, I wanted her blessing; I wanted to be on Oprah.

I sent a copy of the book, along with a heartfelt letter, to her producer. I haven’t heard anything back yet. But I’ve got six months. Anyway, there’s always “Dancing with the Stars.”

original image at:
celebrities@gearlock.com

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On the airplane home from a college reunion, I watched “He’s Just Not That Into You” while reading about Elizabeth Edward’s forthcoming book, “Resilience” and her appearance on Oprah with her philandering husband. I don’t know which one made me more squeamish.

The movie is based on the best-selling book, which served as an upside-the-head smack for obsessed women everywhere. If he doesn’t call, if he always has excuses, if you suspect he’s not being straight with you then – hello? – he’s trying to tell you something without coming out and saying it: basically, he’s not all that interested although the sex might be fun. It’s taken years of bad date and mate experiences, plus one wonderful abeit criminally short marriage to understand that pursuing someone who isn’t that into you will invariably result in humiliation. By the way, guys, we know that and our best friends know that and hundreds of advice columns tell us that and don’t ask me why we continue to try and make you change anyway. Maybe if you came right out and told us directly we might accept your lack of interest – but I can’t be sure

Since we tend to assume marriage is the ultimate commitment, betrayal becomes more difficult. There’s history, there’s attachment, there may be children and there may even be love.  There’s also disbelief at the highest levels: how could he? Acceptance is long in coming. Women whose husbands deceive and leave aren’t left with much choice except to hold their heads high and get a good divorce attorney. Women whose husbands stray and stay seem to be from another planet, qualifying, we might suppose, for sainthood or at least martyrdom. 

The ultimate stakes seem to involve public figures, men whose egos and appetites blind them to the possibilities they will be outed. What do their women do? In olden days, they might suffer in silence, perhaps. No more.

HilBilI can understand that the humiliation of standing or sitting by your man  as he admits to his transgression at a press conference or on some TV talk show would be  enough to compel you to inflict maximum discomfort. Watching your husband take up with a woman young enough to be his daughter (or a man, for that matter) just because he can is hard enough. Having to suffer silently while it becomes tabloid and talk-show fodder has to be excruciating.Spitzer

So while good works and public service might do for some, a number of public figure spouses have responded with tell-all (or tell-some) books or articles these days, not to mention visits to Oprah, Ellen, “The Today Show,” and even perhaps a well-placed YouTube video. That makes it hard to think about  Elizabeth Edwards, her forthcoming book and appearance on Oprah.

Edwards follows in the footsteps of an infuriated Dina McGreevey, whose book about her husband Jim’s gay infidelity, about which she hadn’t, according to her book, a clue. mcGreevyThe ex-governor responded with his own tell-all book, the two books competing as the divorcing couple engaged in a fierce custody battle. Dina was obviously embarrassed and it’s entirely possible she needed the money; New Jersey governors don’t make all that much.

But Elizabeth Edwards is a lawyer and public health advocate, a mother of three who survived the loss of her first-born and is battling hard to survive a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She’s so  so respected she’s almost been canonized. She sits on several important boards and committees and is a leading advocate for healthcare reform. Why the tell-all book, which, by all accounts, lays far more of the blame on the other woman than on her husband?

The advanced buzz is that Edwards wanted to help other women by telling her story but there are ways to provide counseling, outreach and support without headlines. Money might explain part of it but I don’t think that’s it.  Of course, as we writers know, once we’ve gone through the painful yet cathartic process of writing it all down, we are understandably anxious to   get it our there. More than a few wronged women might be into perpetrating the drama, which also extends the attention.You could argue that Edwards has exacted the ultimate revenge: her husband is to appear with her on “Oprah.”

Mostly, though, I think I suspect Edwards is afflicted with our distinctly female need to explain – explain in print, explain again to Oprah or Ellen or Meredith or whichever sympathetic yeah-I’ve-been-there woman is gently interviewing you or to your best friend or the woman who does your nails or someone you’re sitting next to on the subway, explain yet again on the book tour or on YouTube or at your book club or your Pilates class, explain over and over and over again as many times as you need to – in the preposterous hope that explaining it will help make sense of it and may, in some distant time and place or possibly a parallel universe – allow you to get through to the cheating other who may – if the stars align and the earth moves under our feet  –  come up with an acceptable explanation and maybe even come home to stay.

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With North Korea threatening nuclear testing, Somalia pirates threatening sailors, Taliban tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan threatening women, and Rush Limbaugh threatening my fragile equilibrium, I’m ready for a new kind of threat: the updating of perfectly decent pieces of literature.

Actually, it’s a new and, in this case, ghoulish twist on the idea that someone can always improve on a classic that caught my eye: an article in the New York Times concerning a book soaring up Amazon.com’s best seller list about zombies run amok in the rarefied world of Jane Austen heroines. Okay, to be honest, I don’t know whether to be appalled or jealous. I mean, Amazon’s Top Ten! zombies-pride-431-212x300

The book in question is called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and if you don’t think someone’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, let me share with you the book’s author biographies: “Jane Austen is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and other masterpieces of English Literature. Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature. He lives in Los Angeles.” Of course he does.

The book’s opening paragraph is as compelling as any Austen novel you might read: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” One online purveyor describes it as “…an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” And the price has just been reduced!

The mind boggles – well, mine does, since it hasn’t yet been chewed by zombies, at least to my knowledge (but then again, would I know?) Literary mashups, unlike writer-for-hire sequels, have a host of modern-day options or obsessions from which to choose in order to spice up the original. Sure,  there’s been some adjusting to the P & P plot-line but at least this author appears to be relatively true to Austen’s writing style. That’s something, isn’t it?

Producers, directors and writers have been having good, mostly clean fun taking license with the classics for some time now. Marie Antoinette was reimagined in the person of Kirsten Dunst as a bored party girl. Henry VIII on the HBO series “The Tudors” is young and studly and entirely worth losing one’s head over. I don’t know whether classic authors would be appalled or amused by this turn of events but I suspect this kind of silliness is here to stay.

My mind (or what’s left of it) has begun to wander with the wonder of this new cultural phenomena. There are so many classics that might benefit from an extreme makeover. What about Dr Zhivago Meets Doctor Phil or Moby Dick Cheney? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t rush out to buy Survivor: Treasure Island or Monsters Versus Strangers in a Strange Land? And shouldn’t your book list include The Inconvenient Truth About Dante’s Inferno?

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Sometimes I think I’m prescient (actually, I think I come up with ideas at the same time or slightly ahead of other people who are far more established, possessed of name recognition, book deals, sharp agents and better meta-tags that draw more people to their web sites. Oh well). My latest ah-ha moment took place while looking through my current copy of O, the magazine of all things Oprah. Its chirpy emphasis on self-discovery can get annoying, but where else will you find inspirational stories, customized advice columns, wide-ranging book recommendations and information on where to buy great handbags for under $100?

 

Anyway, it occurred to me that a President who drops book references as casually as Martha Stewart might lean over during lunch and craft your napkin into a centerpiece could be as influential as Oprah when it comes to promoting his favorite reads. Guess it’s obvious, since an article appeared in the paper about the value of a plug from the president-elect; this after the hoopla over three current books on FDR, one of which he may have referenced in a 60 Minutes interview. He didn’t even name the book, yet those three writers have benefited from the attention. Now most non-fiction authors, including yours truly, are trying to figure out how to get on the reading list of our next President. 

 

What better way to try and understand what he’s thinking, or what he’ll be doing, than to find out what he reads? Is Doris Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln the inspiration behind his outreach to Hillary for Secretary of State (and what might inspire Hillary to decline it: It’s A Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments?) Does his off-handed mention of a book about FDR’s first hundred days (whichever book it is) suggest how he will govern during economic hard times? Isn’t his own The Audacity of Hope really a blueprint for his political philosophy?

 

 

Of course we can always read books about Obama although they seem to veer between adulatory and vitriolic. I’d rather try and read what he’s reading, along with my usual escapist fare. I have a feeling that, as busy as he is about to be, he could help me keep my bedside bookshelf stocked for the next several years. Meanwhile, I can always pick and choose from among Oprah’s recommendations if I want to know what America’s most influential woman is reading – at least until I get a look at Michelle’s book list.

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We’re in the midst of our second heat-wave out here on the Eastern Seaboard and my electricity bill just came in. Apparently setting the thermostat at 78 isn’t good enough especially in my townhouse, thanks to my energy – inefficient design. I’d drive to the beach but well, you know the price of gas.

I’ve been alternating between Barnes and Noble and the public library. This has given me a chance to borrow someone else’s air conditioning, get a little work done and also sip on an iced cappuccino while checking out some new book titles under anything and everything from fiction to current events to philosophy. The buzz is about Jane Mayer’s new book, “The Dark Side – The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into the War on American Ideals”  but I want to read another book on the table by Richard Shankman called “Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter” – although I think I already know how it’s going to turn out.

Speaking of dark, saw “The Dark Knight” last night. A little confusing, a whole lot dark and featuring some terrific performances not only by Heath Ledger and Christian Bale but also, in my view, Aaron Eckhart. I’ve been a fan of his for a few years and could never understand why a guy who played his impossibly good looks into some nice ironic performances had never made it. Then I remember George Clooney was nearly out of his thirties. Anyway, I figure this performance should kick him up a level. Worth a look-see but note: it’s two and a half hours. 

Al Gore gave a speech that was either inspiring or unrealistic, depending on what you read about it.  Maybe it was both. He does seem to be uniquely positioned these days to point out our problems, issue challenges and speak optimistically about a future in which we have become free of our dependency from carbon-based fossel fuels – a future in which we don’t have to be “borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.” Strangely enough, Gore seems to think we can do it, er, not borrow money to burn oil to destroy the planet but actually reduce or eliminate our oil dependency.

His optimism stands in stark contrast to the way the rest of us seem to be feeling. One recent poll says 81% of Americans feel America is headed in the wrong direction and a Rockefeller Foundation/Time Magazine poll that measured Americans’ concerns about the economy also revealed that nearly half the 18-29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past.”Speaking of economy, just about everything I read says we’re in it for the long haul, negatively speaking.

Kind of dark thoughts and we haven’t even reached the dog days of summer.

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Many members of what they used to call the “chattering classes” (pundits, bloggers, political junkies, talking heads and the like) are yakking about Scott McClellan’s new book “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” Talk about trying to turn an old story into an exciting new headline; then again, with the primaries stretching out into what feels like a far-off future (although they’re actually over soon..right?), it might seem like fun to stir the pot. Frankly, I can’t get excited about a book with the clumsiest title I’ve run across in a long time. I mean, read the title and watch one of Mr. McClellan’s talk show appearances and you’ve got the gist of it: Washington bad, Administration bad, me, innocent and betrayed. Yeah, well, welcome to the club, Scott.

I’ve gone ahead and plunged into my summer reading, which, I admit, is usually part of my winter, fall and spring reading too, which is to say novels of intrigue, either local or international. Girly-girl though I often am, when it comes to escapism, I’m more “Iron Man” than “Sex and the City”, less Candace Bushnell than Frederick Forsyth. I like to learn while I’m having fun and I prefer the complications of conducting a spy operations in a foreign desert to the confusions of juggling men and careers in an urban jungle.

My latest read is “The Whole Truth” by David Baldacci, a DC lawyer turned novelist whose books have been what I guess you’d call political thrillers, mostly centered inside the Beltway. This new one takes him across Europe and into cyberspace. It’s a first-rate, fast-paced thriller with a scary new twist on an age-old premise: you can fool an awful lot of the people an awful lot of the time, often with very dangerous consequences. In this book, an event nearly results in World War III but the event is fake – made up and sold by a firm specializing in something called “perception management.” Things escalate very quickly; governments are threatened, lives are lost, superpowers act and react. This being a novel, one man, along with one smart and capable woman manage to bring things under some semblance of control.

Note that the term “perception management” originated with the Department of Defense and has entered the public lexicon as a synonym for persuasion. However, as noted military author and military affairs specialist Emily Goldman has written, “falsehood and deception [are] important ingredients of perception management; the purpose is to get the other side to believe what one wishes it to believe, whatever the truth may be.”

Scott McClellan’s book appears to be about truth, lies, betrayal, perception and manipulation. Go ahead and read it if you think it will surprise you. But for jaw-dropping “what ifs” or “could it be happening?” check out “The Whole Truth.” I imagine it’s a faster read and I suspect it’s going to make a far better movie.

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Okay, Hillary lives on to fight another day (or at least fifty of them), Mac sews it up and who would have predicted any of it? Since there are a number of blogs dissecting the minutia of this crazy run-up to the nomination, I’d rather turn my attention today to the run of fake, or should I say “faked” memoirs.

As a writer, I’m interested in the proliferation of books that ought to be titled “My Life – Not. ” The latest dust-up is over “Love and Consequences,”a critically acclaimed memoir about a half-white, half-Native American foster child running drugs for gang-bangers in Los Angeles was apparently completely fabricated. The comfortably middle-class all-white woman who wrote the book defended her actions as a way to “give voice to people who people don’t listen to” – a sentence that doesn’t exactly suggest an inspired writing style, never mind that it’s fiction.

Some may remember the tale of James Frey, whose memoir “A Million Little Pieces” was touted by Oprah and sold as her recommendations do – very well indeed. When the truth of his million little lies surfaced, he was emphatically scolded by Oprah on national TV, which was both entertaining and uncomfortable. Last year, Laura Albert applied her talents to writing as JT LeRoy, addict and son of a prostitute; she even managed to find an actor to wrap himselves in scarves and sunglasses to show up as the nonexistent LeRoy at all the right parties. But wait, there’s more: what about the heart-rending memoir of a young girl trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto who killed a German soldier, escaped and trekked a couple thousand miles across Europe in search of her parents. Oh and did I mention the part about her being adopted by wolves who saved her from the Nazis? The book, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, a Belgian living in Massachusetts, was translated into eighteen languages and was adapted for a French film. It just happens to be complete fantasy. Misha’s name is Monique DeWael and by the way, she’s not even Jewish.

I’m not sure why these folks don’t all just write fiction, since they seem to be good at it. Apparently “real life” stories are seen by the struggling publishing industry (which is obviously saving money by laying off fact-checkers) as  more likely to sell more books. 

I’d love to have the fame and fortune that attend these authors, although obviously not the broken contracts, lawsuits and public humiliation that follow when they’re caught. My reality is pretty boring, except for one rather over-sized event that swamped my life for a time (9/11).  While my experiences are surely memoir-worthy, my “real” story is so much more interesting:

You see, I’m the one-legged illegitimate daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter named as a Communist sympathizer and his beautiful Norwegian/Spanish actress mistress who abandoned me to the streets of London in the late sixties. After falling in with a group of adorable orphans and their charismatic leader, I was taken in by pop model Twiggy, who sent me to a posh boarding school in Switzerland. I spent vacations in Los Angeles singing backup for the BeeGees before dropping out and hitchhiking to India where I worked with Mother Teresa. There I fell in love with a handsome graduate student and champion cyclist teaching American-accented English to start-up entrepreneurs who had an idea for a giant call-center in Bangladesh. The stranger was really a prince in the royal house of some obscure and unpronounceable Arab emirate whose father, a forward-thinking ruler who was actually half-Jewish, was married to a stunningly beautiful Irish-Italian graduate of the London School of Economics. We wed, hosted several peace conferences, produced several stunningly handsome sons and one daughter, a math genius who is a contender in the Miss Teen World competition. Upon the death of my beloved’s father, he took over as a wildly popular leader of his peaceful, ethnically diverse and oil-rich country. After building a sustainable housing project next to our palace,we now divide our time between our lovenest in the desert and our vacation home on an island off the coast of North Carolina, the setting for my next novel.

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My pleasure reading tends to be semi-lowbrow fiction: mysteries and thrillers, the odd fantasy or science fiction, historical novel and sometimes deceptively small character-driven books. I don’t do too well with romance novels or their modern sub-genre, chick-lit; I don’t identify with the earnest, ditzy, determined or confused heroines, all of whom end up depending on the appearance of “Mr. Right”. My idea of escapist fare involves puzzles that have to be solved or life-or-death decisions that have to be made. The drama unfolds in the courtroom, not the bedroom.

However, I’m hooked on a particularly appealing non-fiction book right now called “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby. This academic, erudite, densely packed but highly readable book lays out all the ways and all the reasons our culture has been dumbed down – I mean seriously, irrevocably dumbed down. There have been other books that have sounded the alarm; reviewers have been referring to Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” written in 1963. But Jacoby’s smart, angry, sometimes funny book has the advantage of being very current and extraordinarily specific about all the ways we Americans proudly go for the lowest common denominator. It’s not just that we don’t know science or geography or social studies; we don’t know why we should. We misuse words, misunderstand meanings, resort to easy labels and shrug. We think information equals knowledge, every piece of news is actually newsworthy and every issue has two equivalent sides (to given an example: saying the Holocaust occurred and saying it didn’t are not rationally equal points of view), a position encouraged by cable talk shows.

If you think Ms. Jacoby is preaching to the choir, you’re right. I absolutely believe she’s onto something. I’m not nearly as outraged as she is, probably because I’m not nearly as smart or as intellectually rigorous. In fact, I’m guilty of accepting lower standards of excellence in everything from writing to speaking to TV programming. Still, I’m aware of my shortcomings and make daily efforts to improve my knowledge base. And while I suppose my swearing contributes to the cultural coarsening she deplores, I swear I know the difference between trash, even the enjoyable junk, and news that’s worthy of serious consideration. Britney does not equal Iran on my radar screen. It does for many Americans, though and that’s what worries me.

I’m also concerned, as is Jacoby, about how the idiocy we’re force-fed dulls our ability to think rationally. We’re really getting out of practice, people. How else to explain the bills proposed by Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin that would allow professors and some students carry guns on Alabama’s college campuses, legislation gaining some traction following the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University? The good Senator is quoted as saying: ” “Most university folks feel a no-gun policy is the best policy. I understand their feelings, but reality says otherwise.” Arm students and teachers and let everyone shoot at each other? I want to scream, “Have we lost our minds?” but I already know the answer.

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I love to read – always have – and so my eye was caught by the announcement of a recent study about Americans and reading. The report, issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that young Americans are not reading for fun as much as they used to. The study, ominously if cleverly entitled “To Read or Not To Read” is a followup to one in 2004 which discovered that more than half of all Americans don’t read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. Fearing perhaps that focusing on such effete intellectual pastimes as literary reading would draw further ire from Congressmen who have no use for the endowment, the NEA expanded its scope to include all reading, including nonfiction. What the research indicates is that there is an link between falling test scores and less recreational or “voluntary” reading among middle school and high school students (frequent readers do better on tests, obviously).

What occured to me to ask (and many others, according to an article in the paper) is whether either the researchers or the respondants are factoring in online reading.  True, the democracy of the Internet guarantees a high amount of purile drivel, particularly if you are driven to read the rant that passes for dialogue on most discussion boards. But there’s a surprising amount of decent reading available – original fiction from unpublished writers, online magazines with articles by thoughtful scribes, websites that bring together relevant articles from print magazines you might have forgotten to buy. I’m discomforted by the idea that reading comprehension scores have dropped and I hope educators can come up with creative ways to address that problem.  Most important to me, however, is not what people read or in what form they read it but that they are able to get beyond reading words to understanding fully how – and why – those words are being used.

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I was reading the Huffington Post this morning and thinking about whether to jump into the comments section in order to inject a reasonable note into the back and forth of name-calling and insulting. I could have directed the passionate mud-slingers to my recent post on “Uncivil Society” but decided instead to check out sports, noting that the Mets’ uneven season and the wide-open Tour de France could drive even a casual fan crazy. I went to check my mail and read the lead stories: the Dow has passed 14,000 , Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal may soon be owned by Rupert Murdoch and Bin Laden is again making threats against the U.S. Oh boy! Meanwhile, the rain forecast has been upgraded to strong storms and it’s only four days until we find out whether Harry Potter lives or dies. Who knew summer could be so stressful?

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