2010 - %3, May

Vendela Vida's Nonfiction Picks

| Wed May 19, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are The Believer cofounder and novelist Vendela Vida's answers:

Mother Jones:
Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and
 relatives? Why?


Vendela Vida: For years I've been telling everyone to read Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc followed two Latina girls in the Bronx—and by extension their families and boyfriends—over the course of 10 years. It's a work of journalism, but you feel you're seeing the drug dealers and boys and babies that populate these girls' lives through their own eyes.

Recently, I've been recommending Patti Smith's Just Kids. I read it when it came out earlier this year, and its precise prose and honesty floored me. It made me want to be living in New York in my twenties all over again. It made me wish I had kept a journal as religiously as Smith evidently did. You could have never heard a Patti Smith song and still enjoy the book.

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What's so good
 about it?

VV: By virtue of having edited them, I've probably reread Nick Hornby's three collections of essays for the Believer (The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money) more than any other series of books. In his columns, Hornby chronicles the books he's read and the books he's bought and he discusses how they pertain—or don't pertain—to his life at the time. Read the columns over the course of a few years, and you'll really feel you've been living next door to a fellow reader, catching glimpses of his life while he goes on vacation, raises children, makes his way through many, many books, quits smoking, and quits quitting smoking. I still turn to the columns whenever I want to read something funny, and whenever I'm looking for suggestions of what to read next. It was thanks to Hornby's mention of LeBlanc's book in his column that I first read Random Family.




MJ:
Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when you 
were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and
 why was it so special?

VV: A professor of mine at Columbia recommended I read Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem when I was 21. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it completely changed the way I write and the way I read. I loved the way she inserted herself into the pieces—just the right amount. You get the sense when you're reading her essays that she's noticing things no one else does; there could be a thousand journalists in a room, and no one would pick up on the same truths and turns of phrase and details about an outfit that Didion does. And she describes even the most chaotic of times and places—the Haight-Ashbury in the late '60s, for example—in well-crafted and precise, marmoreal prose. I tell everyone who wants to write nonfiction that they have to start with Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

MJ:
You edit a magazine that publishes a variety of essays and other 
nonfiction. What would you say are some of the qualities that contribute to a compelling work of nonfiction?

VV: 
It's all in what the writer notices. If you're reading a piece of nonfiction and feel happier that the writer's the one making the observations, rather than wishing you were there to be making them yourself, then you know they're doing a good job. I read Bill Buford's Among the Thugs in a day, and prior to reading it, I wasn't at all interested in British soccer. Actually, I'm still not interested in British soccer, but while reading the book I seemed to forget that minor detail. At a certain point, the guide is just as important as the scenery.

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Groupon Rejects Creation Museum

| Tue May 18, 2010 3:11 PM EDT

Via the J-Walk blog, I learned that the deal-of-the-day website Groupon reportedly broke off negotiations with Kentucky's Creation Museum, ultimately deciding the anti-evolution tourist attraction was "too controversial." As Answers in Genesis' Ken Ham tells it:

The Creation Museum had signed a contract to advertise to the Cincinnati area, offering our Individual Annual Pass and Family Annual Pass on Groupon.com for one day at 50 percent off.

On the week the advertisement was to appear, Groupon called to inform us that the marketing department of Groupon had decided that the Creation Museum was "too controversial," and they canceled our contract.

This strikes me as odd. I probably wouldn't choose a Creation Museum deal of the day, but what's it to Groupon if some people do want to see it? Groupon offers deals at tanning salons, and by comparison, a museum seems pretty harmless. So what do you think, readers? Is Groupon right to refuse to promote creationism? Or should they stick to their business of bringing deals to anyone who wants them?

Andrew Bacevich's Nonfiction Picks

| Tue May 18, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are The Limits of Power author Andrew Bacevich's answers:

Mother Jones: What nonfiction book do you foist on friends and relatives?

Andrew Bacevich: Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. Published in 1952, it remains the most insightful book ever written about US foreign policy, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared. There's a new paperback edition available from University of Chicago Press.

MJ: What's the nonfiction you've reread the most—and what's the allure?

AB: There's probably no single title. But my colleague David Fromkin's book on the origins of the modern Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace, is a book that I've returned to time and again. It provides readers a rich understanding of exactly where and how our problems with this region began and offers a powerful reminder regarding the folly to which statesmen are prone.

MJ: Can you think of a nonfiction book someone handed you as a kid that left a lasting impression?

AB: I honestly can't. As a kid I was enamored with fiction, most of it utterly forgettable and long forgotten. 

MJ: What book would makes perfect companion reading to your own The Limits of Power?

AB: This will come across as completely shameless, but I have a book coming out in August that I hope will serve as a complement to Limits. The title is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.

MJ: Have you read anything recently that's made you more optimistic about America's future?

AB: Hope in a Scattering Time is a new biography of Christopher Lasch by Eric Miller. I don't know that it makes me optimistic exactly, but I can find some consolation in the fact that this society can from time to time produce people of Lasch's ruthless integrity. It's wonderfully well-written.

MJ: Any other great nonfiction books, particularly recent ones, that we shouldn't overlook?

AB: The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams first appeared in 1959, but W. W. Norton recently published a 50th anniversary edition. It remains a book well worth reading.
 

Die Antwoord's Zef-Rap Mystery World

| Mon May 17, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

Update: On the brink of their US tour and debut CD release, I interviewed Die Antwoord about their risque new video, South African culture, and why they well self-destruct after five albums: Part 1 here, and Part 2 there.

Have you heard Die Antwoord? You will. I don't know what to make of this crew, exactly, but I’m definitely intrigued. They're a trio of white-trash Afrikaners from southern South Africa, pumping a homegrown rave-hip-hop sound they alternatively call zef-rap or simply "next-level shit."

Leading lady (“Rich Bitch” Yo-Landi Vi$$er) is ultra-twee, a severe, unconventional beauty. Lead man (Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja) is practically a caricature and yet somehow original; angry, inked, completely bonkers—and undaunted by anyone else's idea of cool. DJ Hi-Tek: inscrutable, but the beats are right. Yo-Landi and Ninja are vocally skilled and profane. (Afrikaans, after all, is said to be the best language for swearing.) Catchy. Absurd. Weird with a capped dubya. 51-50. It's hard to look the other way.

Here's Ninja talking to Vice magazine about the group's first album, $0$, coming out soon in the States.

Here in South Africa the taxis play rave music fokken loud my bru. You can hear it from the next city when the taxi comes through, you hear DOOM DOOM DOOM—they gooi the rap-rave megamixes pumping like a nightclub. So my main inspiration is the taxis. The whole album is based on the sound it’s gonna make when it’s pumping through a taxi—It’s that high energy shit you can’t compare.

 

Daniel Handler's Nonfiction Picks

| Mon May 17, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler's answers:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Daniel Handler: Lately I've been giving people How To Cure A Fanatic by Amos Oz, a thoughtful, optimistic, and witty treatise on solving problems in the Middle East. It's an inspirational read not only on the current situation but on any situation that might seem to be without hope. Also, it's short, and I believe if one is foisting books they ought to be easily foistable.

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?

DH: Joan Didion's book on California, Where I Was From, I find endlessly fascinating. But then again I'm a native Californian and thus grew up under the myth that I have no history, so I'm particularly hungry for books that overturn such illusions.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when you were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

DH: My cousin Ben gave me Witness To Our Time, a collection of documentary photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, for my bar mitzvah, and it introduced me to a vast European and American history in a way that I never would have encountered it. It's still a book I page through, and I've always been grateful to Ben (hi, Ben!) for the gift.

MJ: Are there any books of music writing of which you are particularly fond? What do you think makes for good nonfiction music writing?

DH: There is hardly any good music writing at all. Alex Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker, is an exception, and his book The Rest Is Noise is a wonderful book, although an expensive one as anyone who reads it will go out and purchase loads and loads of classical recordings.  Recently I read John Darnielle's book on Black Sabbath, which is also fascinating, although the case for it being nonfiction is a slim one.
 

Is Auto-Tune Killing Pop Music?

| Mon May 17, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

In the US, we overprocess everything, from veggie burgers to sewage to the ever-evolving exterior of Heidi Montag, whose back-scooped, chin-tucked body now resembles nothing that can be found in nature. So it's not surprising that we process the hell out of our music as well.

Auto-Tune, which was originally created to fix pitch and tone problems in singers' voices, has taken over the music industry, spanning virtually every genre—from rock to hip-hop to country to pop. But it didn't stop there. Auto-Tune has dipped its synthesized hooks into TV shows and the Interwebs as well. The hit show Glee continues to be criticized for overusing it, to the point where fans felt compelled to circulate a petition. Also, comedians began a parody series called Auto-Tune the News to mock the likes of Glenn Beck and Katie Couric. This one with Eric Massa is particularly hilar.

Auto-Tune has become so omnipresent that not even our pets are safe. Behold the uh, magic, that is Kittens in Auto-Tune:

Who's speaking out against the robotic-voice takeover? Well, Death Cab for Cutie, for one.

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Bill McKibben's Nonfiction Picks

| Fri May 14, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are author and Mother Jones contributor Bill McKibben's answers:

MJ: Which science-fiction book do you think is most interesting in the way it grapples with the future of our planet?
BM: The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, which is really a very long book about how to make communities work (or not).

MJ: Which book (past or present) has given you the most hope? 
BM: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.

MJ: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?
BM: Anything by Wendell Berry, the finest writer and thinker in the English language (and maybe some other languages, but being a typical American I wouldn't know about that).

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?
BM: Walden, maybe—it's as rich and unbottomed as Scripture.

Clowes Encounters of the Nerd Kind

| Thu May 13, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

Just to clear up any confusion created by that headline, cartoonist Dan Clowes' surname doesn't really sound like "close"; it rhymes with "browse." And he's really not all that nerdy, even though being a celebrated comic-book artist and former fanboy is arguably the height of nerdiness. (Or is it geekiness? I can never keep them straight.) Anyway, if Clowes is a nerd, then we're all nerds now. When I recently sat down to talk with him, Clowes observed how the comic-book scene has gone from a being a "sad little world" to a "sad big world": "When I was in high school, if you said you liked superheroes or Lord of the Rings, you were just like a hopeless reject, and now those are the biggest things in the world. Even Avatar is a total nerd thing, and yet our popular culture has somehow made all that stuff acceptable...I don't think there are any outsiders anymore. It's good for the outsiders; I don't know if it's good for our culture." 

The full interview is here. Check it out for more on Clowes' new book, Wilson, plus why he hates the term "graphic novel," the inside scoop on New Yorker covers, how Charles Manson's eyes ended up on a soda can, and much more.

Jennifer Egan's Nonfiction Picks

| Thu May 13, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan's answers:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Jennifer Egan: The nonfiction book I recommend to anyone who will listen is The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin. This book, published in 1961, is spectacularly prescient on the implications of image culture. Boorstin sees it all: the ever greater hunger for "reality" that arises from the increasing mediation of experience, and the corresponding feats of mediation (eg. reality TV) that attempt to satisfy that hunger while actually sharpening it. In a book that was published even before the televising of the Vietnam War, much less blogging, Boorstin's ability to forsee all of it, conceptually, is staggering.

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?

JE: Same one. What's so good is that every time I return to The Image, media saturation of everyday life has intensified and metamorphosed into bizarre new shapes. And every time, Boorstin gives me a framework through which to consider and understand it. Last time I read The Image, YouTube and Twitter hadn't happened yet, so I think it may be time for another look.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

JE: We had lots of reference books at home that my parents had ordered through LIFE magazine. They urged me to read them when I had questions. One of these books, about Louis Leakey and his discoveries in Olduvai Gorge, in Kenya, made a huge impression on me. I read it again and again, and was swept up in what I imagined as the romance of archeology. For a long time—until I got to college—I was convinced I would be an archeologist, mostly because of the impact of that book. Of course, what I'd hoped to get out of archeology—the chance to dig into people's lives and reconstruct them imaginatively—is what I do now as a fiction writer and a journalist.

Video: Lady Gaga Goes on Strike

| Wed May 12, 2010 3:04 PM EDT

What happens when you mix Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," a hotel workers' strike, and a flashmob? You get a bunch of horn players and hipsters in the lobby of San Francisco's Westin St. Francis belting lines like "I want your gay ass, but not in a bad hotel!" Beat that, 82nd Airborne!