The Riff - May 2010

Susan Orlean's Nonfiction Picks

| Wed May 12, 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 New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean's answers:

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

Susan Orlean: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. A vivid, brilliant explanation of the world we now live in, with regards to Islamic fundamentalism, and a great read, thanks to Wright's extraordinary reporting and storytelling. Not a cheerful book, but a brilliant one. 

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

SO: The White Album by Joan Didion. Everything about it is perfect—the writing, the thinking, the way it captured a moment in American culture.

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?

SO: Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. My brother recommended it to me, and it changed everything for me: I had never read nonfiction that leaped off the page, never read anything that evoked a time and subculture with the same vividness. I couldn't put it down, literally: I think I carried a copy with me for a year, and read it repeatedly, and dreamed of writing a book like it someday. 

MJ: What’s the most underrated book you've ever read, the gem of hidden gems?

SO: Hmm. Fiction? I'd say anything by Sebastian Barry—not that he's underrated, but he hasn't gotten the fame I would expect, given his incredible talent. As for nonfiction...not enough people read Joseph Mitchell anymore, although he is also not underrated; just not quite as acclaimed by the general public as I wish he were. I honestly can't think of anything else at the moment but I'm not near a bookshelf so I'm relying on faulty memory, I'm afraid. 

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Michael Chabon's Nonfiction Picks

| Tue May 11, 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 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon's answers:

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

Michael Chabon: I don't do a lot of foisting, because when it comes to books I don’t really like to be foisted upon. But I'm always happy to find somebody else who loves the work of Lewis Hyde (Trickster Makes This World, The Gift) as much as I do. And I think I've been talking about Slavoj Zizek a little too much lately.

MJ: The work of nonfiction you've reread the most?

MC: I guess it would be Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, particularly the essays "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," "The Storyteller," and especially the "Theses on the Philosophy of History," which every time I finish it feels as if it was made out of something more evanescent than words. Also a continual rereader of John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy—actually a single, immense, thrilling work of literary theory disguised as a reference book.

MJ: Nonfiction book someone gave you as a kid that left a lasting impression?

MC: That would be The Miracle of Language (Fawcett World Library, 1953), an obscure paperback history of language to be found on the TV-room shelf at my grandparents' house in Silver Spring, Maryland; clear and well-written and fascinating. I used to read it so often when I visited that eventually he gave it to me, in 1985, with the penciled inscription: "To Mike—A budding writer should know the tools of his trade. Grandpa."

MJ: As an enthusiast of the comic form, which graphic novelists make you salivate as you await their next book?

MC: Big fan of the Brits: Eddie Campbell, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison. Open the door to include them along with Amis, McEwen, Rushdie, Moorcock, Byatt, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, et al, and I think you could argue that over the past 20 years British literature has been going through one of the most vital and interesting periods in its history.

MJ: Whose nonfiction work do you find is more out there than your own fictional creations?

MC: Oh, no. Not going to get me to accept the premise of that one.

MJ: If I said, here's a million bucks, write me some long-form nonfiction, what would you first think to write about?

MC: The false history of baseball (Doubleday, Cooperstown), the real history of baseball (town ball, Cartwright), all the colorful characters and hucksters and autocrats and players of which they’re both composed, and how the interplay of the deliberate lie and the obscured truth is so emblematic of American historiography in general.

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"We Are The World" (Tea Party Edition)

| Mon May 10, 2010 1:43 PM EDT

Last month Mother Jones spoke with Lloyd Marcus, the black Tea Party musician who's come to enjoy rock-star status at Tea Party rallies, thanks to hits like "Twenty Ten" and "We the People." We had a nice conversation, but one thing I somehow neglected to ask him was whether he had any plans, in the near future, to put together a charity album modeled on 1980s pop ballads like "We Are the World" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Now we have our answer:

In an event that's one part "American Idol" audition and one part "We Are The World" recording session, conservative singer-songwriter Lloyd Marcus is planning to bring together the musical voices of Tea Partiers from across the country to sing the movement's unofficial anthem, "Take Back America," on a charity album to benefit the families of soldiers.

Marcus says he's hoping to get big shots like SNL star Victoria Jackson and Time contributor Ted Nugent on board, which, if Nugent and Jackson's recent appearances are any indication, should turn out swimmingly. But this is mostly about the little guys, like the mostly unknown artists we featured here back in March.

Anyway, because it's Monday, here's a clip of Michael Jackson and Tipper Gore singing "We Are the World" together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Simpler times:

22,673 Pixies Listens (and Counting)

| Mon May 10, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

ClintJCL is obsessed with gathering data. Personal data. He catalogues every TV series he watches, and every movie. He posts a lot on Flickr. He blogs. He compiles monthly summaries of all of his activities. And, for the past decade, he has meticulously documented his listening habits—down to the song—and charted them.

"I like to be able to reflect back on what I did," Clint explains via email. "Do most people know what they were listening to in 1982? Nope, and I don't either. But I can at least change that, moving forward, by generating one of these each year." (By one of these, he means one of these oddly bulbous listening charts: You can see the blown-up version here.)

ClintJCL won't tell me his actual last name, which is kinda incongruous, given how much he advertises about himself online. (As of last night, if you'd googled him, you'd have gotten 22,200 hits.) I know, for instance, that Clint is a 36-year-old born on January 13, 1974 (during the Super Bowl). I know the names and birth dates of his parents and his sister, Britt. I know that he leans libertarian, and that he met his wife, Carolyn, on a pre-Internet computer bulletin board service—even though they went to the same high school. I also know that Clint is 5-foot-9, 150 lbs, with hazel eyes and frizzy brown hair—and that he hails from Woodbridge, Virginia. Then again, this could all be an elaborate hoax; for all I really know, Clint is a very clever 15-year-old girl from Seattle.

Frank Rich's Nonfiction Picks

| Mon May 10, 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, and over the next few weeks I'll be posting their answers right here on the Riff. Let's start with New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich:

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

Frank Rich: Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire's History of the Sixties, edited by Harold Hayes. Here in one brick of an anthology are some of the best pieces by the writers who brought American journalism and essay-writing into the modern age with great prose, narrative drive, hard-edged attitude as well as tireless reporting. Includes not only the enduring stars (Talese, Wolfe, Mailer, Baldwin, Lukas, Wills, Vidal, Wicker, Herr) but also some gems by the lesser known but equally gifted Jack Richardson and John Sack, among others. Collectively, the pieces also capture a much misunderstood, much sentimentalized decade as it unfolded. (Only conspicuous omissions—they weren't contributors to Esquire—Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson).

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

FR: Act One by Moss Hart. My favorite American memoir—about the early years and apprenticeship of the Broadway playwright and director. It's at once a suspenseful Horatio Alger story, a vivid evocation of 1920's New York (from the poorest immigrant tenements uptown to the glittery heights of golden-age Times Square) and a timeless account of how a young man with few resources but a passion for art employs every ounce of his being to escape a childhood blighted by poverty and bitter family dynamics.

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?

FR: Act One (see above), and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Both recommended by my mother, an avid reader and schoolteacher. To wait ravenously for the mailman to deliver Capote's then-shocking "nonfiction novel" week by week as it was serialized in The New Yorker was a seminal reading experience—a glimmer, I imagine, of what it must have been like to devour Dickens in installments in another age.

Calling BS on YouTube's M.I.A Censorship

| Mon May 3, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

I don't want to fight with YouTube. My relationship with YouTube has been one of the more fulfilling and reliable ones in my life. Hence my deep disappointment that it not only buried (rather than deleted, as originally reported) MIA's "Born Free" video—in which American-flag-wearing troops embark on the rounding up, detaining, and killing of redheads—but couldn't come up with some better excuse for doing so than the video's "gratuitous violence."

The clip reminds the Prospect's Silvana Naguib of Arabs being rounded up and caged in The Siege. It reminds me of the scene in Rambo part four where Burmese soldiers toss Claymores into a rice paddy and force ethnic Karen civilians to run through it at gunpoint. Of course, it also evokes images of real US military activities that, as pointed out in MTV's rave review, we'd rather "pretend don't happen." YouTube's PR machine could have at least admitted that the censorship was political rather than hiding behind the pretense of how, though Americans have the right to watch stuff like this, YouTube has an obligation to protect the children. Because while it's true that MIA's video is awfully disturbing, and shouldn't be available to children, you can easily find lots of stuff like this on YouTube (see below), where, for example, Rambo IV is available in its entirety. Is YouTube's gratuitous-violence policy nullified in the event that the clip doesn't question US aggression, or the bad guys are dark and slanty-eyed rather than corn-fed WASPS?

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Flying Lotus' Cosmic Collage

| Mon May 3, 2010 7:02 AM EDT

Flying Lotus
Cosmogramma
Warp

From its jarring, video-gamey first 10 seconds (which transition into lovely harp music driven by clickity electronic beats and buzzing atmospheric sounds, for a distinct opening track just over a minute long) to the sampled table-tennis game of its penultimate ditty, every moment of this experimental effort from producer and laptop musician Flying Lotus smacks of the weird, the wondrous, and the well-collaged.

Unquestionably psychedelic (FlyLo and friends took over Dublab Studios in Los Angeles on April 20th to produce a tripped-out radio special), the LP is a sprawling, visionary landscape of dreamy strings, cartoonish synthesis, the occasional scissored-up Thom Yorke vocal, and much, much more. It's quite a tangled thicket, and all the more delightfully ensnarling for it.

FlyLo, who is responsible for a lot of the bumper music during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, already demonstrated a virtuosic talent for divergent musical tinkering with 1983 and Los Angeles. Cosmogramma, a work of high style and innovation, shows him continuing to push his sound into otherworldly, wildly imaginative territory.

Listen: