The Medium, the Message & the Commonplace Book

May 9th, 2011 by Tom Jory

In his monumental and definitive new book, The Information, James Gleick makes frequent, mostly passing reference to Marshall McLuhan, the “medium is the message” man of the 1960s. Both of them wrote about the transition from print to electronic culture, McLuhan before it happened, Gleick while in the process.

Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland: NOOK Book Cover

The may be no better introduction to the subject, and certainly no more delightful window onto it, than Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! Half a century later, McLuhan’s predictions about the end of print culture and the rise of “electronic inter-dependence” have become a reality—in a sense, the reality—of our time. Coupland, whose iconic novel Generation X was a “McLuhanesque” account of our culture in fictional form, has written a compact biography of the cultural critic that interprets the life and work of his subject from inside. A fellow Canadian, a master of creative sociology, a writer who supplied a defining term, Coupland is the ideal chronicler of the uncanny prophet whose vision of the global village—now known as the Internet—has come to pass in the 21st century.

The Information by James Gleick: Book Cover

Gleick, the author of the best sellers Chaos and Genius, now brings us in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality—the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world. The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu: Book Cover

In this age of an open Internet, it is easy to forget that every American information industry, beginning with the telephone, has eventually been taken captive by some ruthless monopoly or cartel. With all our media now traveling a single network, an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear. Could history repeat itself with the next industrial consolidation? Could the Internet—the entire flow of American information—come to be ruled by one corporate leviathan in possession of “the master switch”? That is the big question of Tim Wu’s pathbreaking book, appropriately entitled The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. As Wu’s sweeping history shows, each of the new media of the 20th century—radio, telephone, television, and film—was born free and open. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total domination. Part industrial exposé, part meditation on what freedom requires in the information age, The Master Switch is a stirring illumination of a drama that has played out over decades in the shadows of our national life and now culminates with terrifying implications for our future.

How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish: Book Cover

On a more practical level, Stanley Fish in How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, starts by telling us: “I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, �Isnt that something?’ or �What a sentence!’” Like a seasoned sportscaster, Fish marvels at the adeptness of finely crafted sentences and breaks them down into digestible morsels, giving readers an instant play-by-play. In this entertaining and erudite gem, Fish offers both sentence craft and sentence pleasure, skills invaluable to any writer (or reader). His vibrant analysis takes us on a literary tour of great writers throughout history—from William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Henry James to Martin Luther King Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Elmore Leonard. Indeed, How to Write a Sentence is both a spirited love letter to the written word and a key to understanding how great writing works; it is a book that will stand the test of time.

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Further breaking things down, social networks are dominating today’s headlines, but they are not the only platforms that are radically changing the way we communicate. Creatives such as designers, photographers, artists, researchers, and poets are disseminating information about themselves and their favorite subjects not via predefined media such as Twitter or blogs, but through printed or other self-published projects so-called zines. Those who publish zines are mostly interested in sole authorship, namely that all components including text, images, layout, typography, production, and distribution are firmly in the hands of one person or a small group. At their best, the results convey a compelling and consistent atmosphere and push against the established creative grain in just the right way. They provoke with surprising and non-linear food for thought. In short, zines are advancing the evolution of today s media. With a cutting-edge selection of international examples, Behind the Zines: Self-Publishing Culture introduces the broad range of zines that exists today. The book examines the key factors that distinguish various zines. It introduces projects in which the printing process significantly influences aesthetics or in which limited distribution to a small, clearly defined target audience becomes part of the overall concept. It not only documents outstanding work, but also shows how the self-image of those who make zines impacts the scene as a whole. Through interviews with people involved in zine production and distribution, the book sheds light on various strategies for this evolving media form.

A Little Common Place Book

In the end, reading is perhaps best understood as a peculiar form of writing, and vice versa. Renaissance thinkers took this paradox seriously, giving it concrete form in their “commonplace books,” manuscript journals of passages copied from assorted texts and organized under various headings. The origins of the practice lay in the preparatory methods of classical oratory and medieval sermon composition, but commonplacing achieved the status of a true art among humanists like Erasmus and Montaigne, who used these notebooks to maintain command over an ever-expanding body of published texts, while culling material for their own correspondence, essays and literary compositions. A Little Common Place Book is a facsimile of a notebook originally printed in 1797—the only remaining copy of which is held in the rare books collection of Princeton University—and  reprints its introduction to the principles of commonplacing as practiced by the philosopher John Locke, as well as 144 blank pages for collecting and cataloguing your own thoughts.

Some Captivating (Fictional) Life Strategies

May 4th, 2011 by Tom Jory

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill: Book Cover

In a stately West Village town house, a wealthy socialite and her secretary are murdered. In the 24 hours that follow, a flurry of activity surrounds their shocking deaths: The head of one of the citys last tabloids stops the presses. A cop investigates the killing. A reporter chases the story. A disgraced hedge fund manager flees the country. An Iraq War vet seeks revenge. And an angry young extremist plots a major catastrophe. The city is many things: a proving ground, a decadent carnival, or a palimpsest of memoriesa historic metropolis eclipsed by modern times. As much a thriller as it is a gripping portrait of the city of today, Tabloid City is a new fiction classic from the writer who has captured New York perfectly for decades. Pete Hamill is a novelist, journalist, editor, and screenwriter. He is the author of 20 previous books including the bestselling novels Forever and Snow in August and the bestselling memoir A Drinking Life. He lives in New York City.

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle: Book Cover

Doc Ebersole lives with the ghost of Hank Williams—not just in the figurative sense, not just because he was one of the last people to see him alive, and not just because he is rumored to have given Hank the final morphine dose that killed him. In 1963, 10 years after Hanks death, Doc himself is wracked by addiction. Having lost his license to practice medicine, his morphine habit isnt as easy to support as it used to be. So he lives in a rented room in the red-light district on the south side of San Antonio, performing abortions and patching up the odd knife or gunshot wound. But when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, appears in the neighborhood in search of Docs services, miraculous things begin to happen. Graciela sustains a wound on her wrist that never heals, yet she heals others with the touch of her hand. Everyone she meets is transformed for the better, except, maybe, for Hanks angry ghost—who isnt at all pleased to see Doc doing well.  A brilliant excavation of an obscure piece of music history, Steve Earles Ill Never Get Out of This World Alive is also a marvelous novel in its own right, a ballad of regret and redemption, and of the ways in which we remake ourselves and our world through the smallest of miracles.

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: Book Cover

The narrator of Calebs Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the islands glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At 12, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethias minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribes shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Calebs crossing of cultures. Like Geraldine Brookss beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Marthas Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, this newest story further establishes Brookss place as one of our most acclaimed novelists.

The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt: Book Cover

Mia Fredrickson, the wry, vituperative, tragic comic, poet narrator of The Summer Without Men, has been forced to re-examine her own life. One day, out of the blue, after 30 years of marriage, Mia’s husband, a renowned neuroscientist, asks her for a “pause.” This abrupt request sends her reeling and lands her in a psychiatric ward. The June following Mia’s release from the hospital, she returns to the prairie town of her childhood, where her mother lives in an old people’s home. Alone in a rented house, she rages and fumes and bemoans her sorry fate. Slowly, however, she is drawn into the lives of those around her—her mother and her close friends, “the Five Swans,” and her young neighbor with two small children and a loud angry husband—and the adolescent girls in her poetry workshop whose scheming and petty cruelty carry a threat all their own. From Siri Hustvedt, the internationally bestselling author of What I Loved, comes a provocative, witty, and revelatory novel about women and girls, love and marriage, and the age-old question of sameness and difference between the sexes.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto: Book Cover
While The Lake shows off many of the features that have made Banana Yoshimoto famous—a cast of vivid and quirky characters, simple yet nuanced prose, a tight plot with an upbeat pace—it’s also one of the most darkly mysterious books she’s ever written. It tells the tale of a young woman who moves to Tokyo after the death of her mother, hoping to get over her grief and start a career as a graphic artist. She finds herself spending too much time staring out her window, though until she realizes she’s gotten used to seeing a young man across the street staring out his window, too. They eventually embark on a hesitant romance, until she learns that he has been the victim of some form of childhood trauma. Visiting two of his friends who live a monastic life beside a beautiful lake, she begins to piece together a series of clues that lead her to suspect his experience may have had something to do with a bizarre religious cult. Banana Yoshimoto wrote her first novel, Kitchen, while working as a waitress at a golf-course restaurant. It sold millions of copies worldwide, and led to a phenomenon dubbed by Western journalists as “Banana-mania.” Yoshimoto has gone on to be one of the biggest-selling and most distinguished writers in Japanese history, winning numerous awards for her work

Emma Straub, Other Writers, May 1 at Sundays at Sunnys

April 28th, 2011 by Tom Jory

Emma Straub will read from her debut story collection, Other People We Married, at Sunny’s in Red Hook at 3 o’clock Sunday, May 1. Emma will be joined on the monthly Sunday at Sunny’s program by Jim Rasenberger, author of The Brilliant Disaster:  JFK, Castro, and Americas Doomed Invasion of Cubas Bay of Pigs, and Nancy Rommelmann, whose first novel. The Bad Mother, is set among Hollywoods transient population of street kids.

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Emma Straub, who works at BookCourt, a co-sponsor of the monthly literary event, has published fiction and essays in The Paris Review Daily, Slate, Cousin Corinnes Reminder, and many other journals. Emma’s story collection was published in February, and her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, is due next year from Riverhead Books.

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Jim Rasenberger is the author of three booksThe Brilliant Disaster, America 1908, and High Steel and has contributed to The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, and Wilson Quarterly, among other publications. He has also written for film and television,. A native of Washington, D.C., he lives in New York City with his wife and sons.

Nancy Rommelman’s articles and profiles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, Reason, and other publications. The idea for The Bad Mother grew out of her experiences chronicling the stories of Hollywoods various under-exposed populations: a crew of Mexican gardeners working the Hollywood Hills; the cop groupies who hang out at the LAPDs favorite bar, and the dream-broke residents of Sunset Boulevards transient hotels .She grew up in Brooklyn and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Sunny’s is at 253 Conover St., and admission is $5.

2011 Pulitzer-Prize Winners

April 18th, 2011 by Tom Jory

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Book Cover

FICTION: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive.В Sasha isВ the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, this is aВ startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner: Book Cover

HISTORY: In The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner gives us the definitive history of Lincoln and the end of slavery in America. Foner begins with Lincolns youth in Indiana and Illinois and follows the trajectory of his career across an increasingly tense and shifting political terrain from Illinois to Washington, D.C. Although “naturally anti-slavery” for as long as he can remember, Lincoln scrupulously holds to the position that the Constitution protects the institution in the original slave states. But the political landscape is transformed in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act makes the expansion of slavery a national issue.

Washington by Ron Chernow: Book Cover

BIOGRAPHY: In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as Americas first president.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee: CD Audiobook Cover

GENERAL NON-FICTION: The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane “biography” of cancer—from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence. Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with—and perished from—for more than five thousand years.

The Best of It by Kay Ryan: Book Cover

POETRY: Kay Ryan’s recent appointment as the Library of Congress’s 16th poet laureate is just the latest in an amazing array of accolades for this wonderfully accessible, widely loved poet. Salon has compared her poems to “Fabergé eggs, tiny, ingenious devices that inevitably conceal some hidden wonder.” The 200 poems in Ryan’s The Best of It offer a stunning retrospective of her work, as well as a swath of never-before-published poems of which are sure to appeal equally to longtime fans and general readers.

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris: Book Cover

DRAMA: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is an acerbically brilliant satire that explores the fault line between race and property in a Chicago neighborhood first in 1959 and revisited in 2009.

The Civil War Resonates 150 Years Later

April 13th, 2011 by Tom Jory

Early last Tuesday morning, booming cannons in Charleston Harbor commemorated what historians regard as the first shots fired in the Civil War, 150 years ago, April 12, 1861. No one was killed in the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but four years of conflict at the cost of more than 600,000 lives would follow, and now is the time for some reflection on the war and its lasting impact on America and its people.

Hundreds if not thousands ofВ  books have been written on the Civil War and its heroic and not-so-heroic participants, and a few published within the last several weeks are particularly relevant today as they focus on the character of the war and its combatants, on the battlefield and at home.

Ulysses S, Grant by Ulysses S. Grant: Book Cover

If you are looking for a project to mark the sesquicentennial year, Ulysses S. Grants two-volume autobiography, Personal Memoirs, published in 1885 by a firm owned by Mark Twain, is surely among this countrys great books, never out of print and in many readers’ minds, bearing Twain’s stylistic imprint. It was written while Grant was dying of cancer, and while Twain himself was working to complete his own masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Though Twain was 15 years younger than Grant, the two men had much in common, including roots in the frontier, strong ambition and persistent financial difficulties. Both strongly opposed slavery and supported rights and opportunities for black Americans.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 by Mark Twain: CD Audiobook Cover

If you haven’t already, you may owe it to yourself to read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, published in its most complete form last November, a century after the writer’s death. It’s a huge book, but you can limit your own attention to Twain’s writings, and use the hundreds of pages of introduction and notes as reference, if you like.

1861 by historian, journalist and travel writer Adam Goodheart, is an epic of courage and heroism beyond the battlefields. Early in that fateful year, a second American revolution unfolded, inspiring a new generation to reject their parents’ faith in compromise and appeasement, to do the unthinkable in the name of an ideal. It set Abraham Lincoln on the path to greatness and millions of slaves on the road to freedom. The book introduces us to a heretofore little-known cast of Civil War heroes—among them an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, an idealistic band of German immigrants, a regiment of New York City firemen, a community of Virginia slaves, and a young college professor who would one day become president. Goodheart takes us from the corridors of the White House to the slums of Manhattan, from the mouth of the Chesapeake to the deserts of Nevada, from Boston Common to Alcatraz Island, vividly evoking the Union at this moment of ultimate crisis and decision.

America Aflame by David Goldfield: Book CoverBattle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson: Book Cover

In a spellbinding new history, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, historian David Goldfield offers the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era since James M. McPhersons Battle Cry of Freedom. Where past scholars have limned the war as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield sees it as Americas greatest failure: the result of a breakdown caused by the infusion of evangelical religion into the public sphere. As the Second Great Awakening surged through America, political questions became matters of good and evil to be fought to the death. The price of that failure was horrific, but the carnage accomplished what statesmen could not: It made the United States one nation and eliminated slavery as a divisive force in the Union. The victorious North became synonymous with America as a land of innovation and industrialization, whose teeming cities offered squalor and opportunity in equal measure. Religion was supplanted by science and a gospel of progress, and the South was left behind. Goldfields panoramic narrative, sweeping from the 1840s to the end of Reconstruction, is studded with memorable details and luminaries such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman. There are lesser known yet equally compelling characters, too, including Carl Schurz-a German immigrant, war hero, and postwar reformer-and Alexander Stephens, the urbane and intellectual vice president of the Confederacy. America Aflame is a vivid portrait of the ”fiery trial” that transformed the country we live in.

The Siege of Washington by John Lockwood: Book Cover

On April 14, 1861, following the surrender of Fort Sumter, Washington was “put into the condition of a siege,” declared Abraham Lincoln. Located 60 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the nations capital was surrounded by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. With no fortifications and only a handful of trained soldiers, Washington was an ideal target for the Confederacy. The South echoed with cries of ´”On to Washington!” and Jefferson Daviss wife sent out cards inviting her friends to a reception at the White House on May 1. Lincoln issued an emergency proclamation on April 15, calling for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion and protect the capital. One question now transfixed the nation: Whose forces would reach Washington first: Northern defenders or Southern attackers? For 12 days, the citys fate hung in the balance. Washington was entirely isolated from the Northwithout trains, telegraph, or mail. Sandbags were stacked around major landmarks, and the unfinished Capitol was transformed into a barracks, with volunteer troops camping out in the House and Senate chambers. Meanwhile, Maryland secessionists blocked the passage of Union reinforcements trying to reach Washington, and a rumored force of 20,000 Confederate soldiers lay in wait just across the Potomac River. Drawing on firsthand accounts, The Siege of Washington tells this story from the perspective of leading officials, residents trapped inside the city, Confederates plotting to seize it, and Union troops racing to save it, capturing with brilliance and immediacy the precarious first days of the Civil War. The authors are John Lockwood, the National Mall Historian, and Charles Lockwood, the author of 10 books. Both men were born and raised in Washington.

Lincoln on the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln: Book Cover

A tiny gem of a book is Lincoln on the Civil War: Selected Speeches, which combines the classic and obscure, the lyrical and historical, and the inspirational and intellectual to present a historical arc marking periods of the Civil War-crisis, outbreak, escalation, victory, and Reconstruction. Addressing the conflicts multiple aspects-the issue of slavery, state versus federal power, the meaning of the Constitution, civic duty, death, and freedom-this elegant keepsake collection will make a wonderful inspirational gift for professed Lincoln fans, Civil War buffs, and lovers of rhetorical genius.

American Oracle by David W. Blight: Book Cover

There is a lot more to come, including American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era , by David Blight, a professor of history at Yale.

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” He delivered this speech just three years after the Virginia Civil War Commission published a guide proclaiming that “the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing blame or fighting the issues all over again.” Blight takes his readers back to the centennial celebration to determine how Americans then made sense of the suffering, loss, and liberation that had wracked the United States a century earlier. Amid cold war politics and civil rights protest, four of America’s most incisive writers explored the gulf between remembrance and reality. Robert Penn Warren, the southern-reared poet-novelist who recanted his support of segregation; Bruce Catton, the journalist and U.S. Navy officer who became a popular Civil War historian; Edmund Wilson, the century’s preeminent literary critic; and James Baldwin, the searing African-American essayist and activist—each exposed America’s triumphalist memory of the war. And each, in his own way, demanded a reckoning with the tragic consequences it spawned. Blight illuminates not only mid-twentieth-century America’s sense of itself but also the dynamic, ever-changing nature of Civil War memory. On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the war, we have an invaluable perspective on how this conflict continues to shape the country’s political debates, national identity, and sense of purpose.