Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Melville House; 544 pp.
"If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt." If Occupy Wall Street has a philosophical inspiration, it is the unlikely anarchist-anthropologist David Graeber, whose brilliantly sprawling history, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has been among the most-cited books online this fall. Debt traces the development of "debt" from a benign condition of basic sociality—hey, thanks man, I owe you one—to an increasingly malignant mechanism for global immiseration and social control that crowds out all other possibilities for social organization and collective life. While the debt relationship is now so naturalized that it is difficult for modern Westerners to imagine a world without lenders and debtors—a world in which human beings have relations with each other that aren't all reducible to monetary exchange—Graeber demonstrates credit institutions in fact have a history that might have been (and might still be, and in many places on Earth are already) otherwise.
Most crucially for Occupy, Graeber explains how over the hyperextension of the debt relationship through the persistent shifting of risk from lenders onto debtors has tended to destabilize societies throughout history, requiring periodic "debt jubilees" at moments of social-economic crisis to wipe the slates clean. These jubilees were frequently the consequence of peasant rebellions—of which, perhaps, Occupy Wall Street and its anti-bank, anti-debt activism could just be the latest instance. —Gerry Canavan
Why the West Rules—For Now
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 750 pp.
In his sweeping new book, the archaeologist and historian Ian Morris attempts nothing less than to pin down the whole shape of human history in order to understand how the West came to "rule"—the term is mordantly ironic—and what might happen next. He does this via a social development index of his own devising, which is careful not to measure anything as subjective as, say, quality of arts. Reading this index like an ancient Chinese king reading the cracks in an oracle bone, he navigates between faintly racist long-term lock-in theories and faintly daffy short-term accident theories of Western development to say, roughly, "It's the geography, stupid." Climate and resources are the prime movers of cultural progress—though progress can turn back its own tide with the new problems it creates. The braid of history, with various cultures playing a game of developmental leapfrog, predicts the West's inevitable decline. For Western triumphalists, the book will have a lonesome Ozymandian flavor: "Look on my works ye mighty, and despair!" But Morris' crisp, witty, anecdotal style is a pleasure, though readers more interested in the general thrust of the argument than knowing precisely when domesticated millet first appeared in various regions may do some skimming. —Brian Howe
Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood 1979–1983
Edited by Kevin Avery
Continuum; 288 pp.
Hey, you wanna get close to a motion-picture icon for a number of years? Here's what you do: Interview said icon for a magazine cover story that you'll never write. That appears to be what Paul Nelson did as he spent several years interviewing Clint Eastwood for a Rolling Stone cover story that he never got around to writing. (Apparently, Nelson had some serious OCD issues that hobbled his writing.)
Nelson, a famed rock critic and Rolling Stone editor who passed away in 2006, had tapes upon tapes of lost Eastwood interviews that Nelson biographer Kevin Avery (the just-released Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson) edited and compiled for your reading pleasure. In his talks with Eastwood, it's clear that the obviously star-struck Nelson adored Eastwood not only as an actor but also as a filmmaker, which was virtually unprecedented at the time. Keep in mind these interviews were done during an era when Eastwood was still seen as a squinting, gun-toting, action antihero, not as the revered, Oscar-winning director that he is today.
The bulk of the conversations have Eastwood dishing about his lean and economical method of filmmaking—something he picked up from his days working with genre guys Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. But Eastwood also lets his cineaste side shine, copping to his appreciation for the films of Bergman (his earlier work, of course), Kurosawa, even Woody Allen.
Reading these interviews almost makes you feel sorry for Nelson, who never had the chance to be the first to herald Eastwood as the auteur he would eventually become. Fortunately, Conversations With Clint shows that he was, at least, the first to recognize it. —Craig D. Lindsey
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Norton; 356 pp.
It's surprisingly easy to look back upon your life to find moments when a random event or insignificant choice determined the path you're on today. Grabbing a different seat in the auditorium in your Psychology 101 class might have meant never meeting your eventual spouse or bringing your kids into the world. National Book Award winner Stephen Greenblatt applies this kind of hindsight to Western history itself in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Greenblatt marvels at how, in 1471, book hunter Poggio Bracciolini reclaimed Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things"—which he claims sparked the Renaissance, as well as scads of other earth-shaking concepts such as evolution and Jeffersonian democracy—from dusty obscurity after the manuscript was lost for more than a millennium. Greenblatt, a Harvard scholar, reduces Lucretius to its basic tenets and shows how the Roman's concept of the swerve resolves nature, religion and free will in 7,400 lines of blank hexameter. Quantum physics, chaos theory, genetic mutation and even the inclusion of the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence are attributed as Lucretian swerves. Although the mawkishness meter is dialed a little high on Greenblatt's prose, his book makes a great gift for the casual intellectual, especially when combined with a copy of the Lucretius, which is a potentially life-changing read. —Chris Vitiello
Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography
Penguin Press; 310 pp.
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris possesses a wonderfully eccentric and obsessive mind. He's a better filmmaker than writer (arguably among the most innovative auteurs to work in nonfiction), but what saves this treatise on photography from being overly pedantic is his willingness to explore tangents and linger over salient details. Some are humorous. But many more are chilling—like the photograph of leg irons and hobbling chains used to torture orphans of the American Civil War. When Morris floats the specter of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat over Abu Ghraib, the reader's blood runs cold.
Morris remains a hard-core skeptic, a self-proclaimed "secular anti-humanist." Here his thoughts are pointed: Photographs generally offer more questions than answers. And what seems obvious at a glance dissolves when rigorously investigated.
One case study, the "Cheshire Cat"—an outgrowth of Morris' research on the Abu Ghraib photographs for his film Standard Operating Procedure—delves into the meaning of the "thumbs-up" photo of Sabrina Harman. (The photograph, one of the most notorious of the scandal, showed a smiling U.S. soldier mugging above a dead Iraqi "detainee.") We learn that Harman's smile is a "social smile" and doesn't signal genuine enjoyment. Considering this, along with other evidence, a contrary assessment of Harman emerges to counter the misleading first impression left by the infamous photograph. Believing Is Seeing contextualizes this misconception and situates it within the history of photography. —Douglas Vuncannon
Knopf; 208 pp.
Joan Didion's Blue Nights is an account of frailty—but not of whom you might expect. An unhappy sequel to Didion's best-selling grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), about her husband John Gregory Dunne's sudden death (and, more deeply, its aftermath), Blue Nights mourns another lost loved one. Less than two years after Dunne died, the couple's adopted daughter, Quintana, succumbed at age 39 to acute pancreatitis following long and complicated illnesses, both physical and psychological.
Yet the frailty here is not that of Quintana, whose precocity, intrepidity and "quicksilver changes of mood" make her a powerful yet elusive figure in Blue Nights. The frailty is Didion's: her need for Quintana, her parental regrets, her ailments, anxieties and immense grief. But worst among the frailties, as for most writers, is Didion's ebbing confidence in her own prose, which "no longer comes easily to me," she confesses.
Blue Nights demonstrates Didion's struggle with words, a mortal one for a writer whose most famous line is "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." Her composed, astringent voice is among the most iconic in American literature, and Blue Nights could only be her book. Yet her trademark anaphoristic rhetoric, intricate syntax and terse lyricism often become "mudgy" (a word coined by Quintana). Didion, like an unreliable narrator of her own life, repeats and contradicts and misrepresents herself; loses the thread, loses her memory, even indulges a deliberately digressive anecdote "just to prove ... that my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story." Blue Nights not only describes the frailty. It is the frailty. Yet there is shrewd dexterity in Didion's elision of the irony that the 75-year-old ironist has outlived her husband, her daughter and many other intimates who appear in Blue Nights and have since passed—and Blue Nights is, despite its difficulties, an irresistibly readable book. Are Joan Didion and her writing not quite so frail, after all? —Adam Sobsey
The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India
Viking 2011; 272 pp.
Novelist and journalist Siddhartha Deb plunges the reader into the very nonfiction world of "India Shining." Flashy IT entrepreneurs work in buildings buzzing with computers and high aspirations. Depressed young call center workers try to placate angry customers in Nebraska and London. Desperate farmers abandon village life to find work in clanging factories. Riding the 6-lane highway toward Bangalore, part of the Golden Quadrilateral project linking India's main cities, Deb writes, "As I looked down at the uneven patchwork of agricultural fields where people toiled ceaselessly in the summer heat, I could not help but think of them as marooned at a lower plane of existence." All of this, the glitter and desire at the top, the desperation at the bottom, are the new India.
Deb's book is a socioeconomic travelogue in which he spends five years seeking, in a very traditional sense, the truth below the surface. From the hi-hope, hi-tech schools of Arindam Chaudhuri (check out the ponytailed business guru on YouTube), Deb pushes on, down through the layers. He works in a call center, listens to small farmers, pokes around factories and sits with itinerant workers in gritty squalor. As the 2008 crash hits, he tours halted construction zones. In the newest of new India, rural girls join unemployable college graduates in five-star hotels serving exotic drinks to the men and women at the top of the pile. It's a fascinating circle and an alarming read. —Susan Simone
The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media
Norton; 170 pp.
Any time you hear or read the number "50,000" used as a statistic, be wary. Brooke Gladstone will explain it all to you. She's the host of WNYC's On the Media, distributed on NPR, and she has forgotten more about the media than you will ever know. And to put her thoughts in a book, she has crafted a delightful graphic novel, illustrated by Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge), where her cartoon avatar addresses us directly about the history of the media and its implications. You will learn about the history and evolution of reporting, its relationship with the public and the government, and you will not be bored. You will be thoroughly entertained and sometimes worried. But Gladstone's friendly, funny style and Neufeld's remarkably versatile art will keep you reassured, particularly at the end, where Gladstone looks into the future of media—and finds something positive. Don't you love a happy ending? Journalism majors, be warned: You will probably be required to read this in your classes in a few years. Don't worry. You'll love it. —Zack Smith
I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution
Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum
Dutton Adult; 608 pp.
An oral history is a fun thing to poke through in bursts, getting to the fun, meaty parts of a strange saga. That process works best for this history of the rise of MTV (cutting things off neatly at the advent of The Real World, after which the name "Music Television" became increasingly inaccurate). In a chapter on the highlights of the Video Music Awards, for example, you get anecdotes about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers getting into it with Vince Neil of Motley Crüe, Bobby Brown dropping an (alleged) coke vial on camera and Don Henley refusing to come sit in his seat because he's convinced he'll lose to M.C. Hammer. The reminiscences about Andrew "Dice" Clay's profanity-ridden hosting gig aren't even the most interesting part. There are heaps of chapters like this, sometimes disjointed—did we really need several pages set aside for Billy Squier discussing his awful video for "Rock Me Tonite?"—but it's still a fascinating look at the challenges, excesses and sometimes outright delusions that made an initially obscure cable channel the tastemaker for a decade. And almost every one of the self-proclaimed rebels interviewed hates what little music is played on MTV today. Of course. —Zack Smith
Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States
Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Streible, Eds.
Oxford University Press; 525 pp.
"OK, class. We're going to see a short film today." The middle-aged among us likely feel a deep, visceral thrill just reading those words. Resting our chins on folded arms atop our Trapper Keepers, we watched the 16mm projector's flicker on classroom screens pulled down from the map rack, learning about the cosmos, or the three branches of government, or even, stifling snickers, the human reproductive system. Learning With the Lights Off details and celebrates those educational films that your elementary school teacher needed help threading into the projector. Although academic titles aren't everyone's first literary choice, this collection of 24 essays holds plenty for the lay reader. Editors Devin and Marsha Orgeron know how to combine academic rigor with having a good time, teaching film studies at N.C. State and, with essay contributor and A/V Geeks mastermind Skip Elsheimer, organizing Raleigh's super-fun Home Movie Day event. Particularly interesting essays include Miriam Posner's description of how contagion serves as a narrative device in Thomas Edison's anti-tuberculosis films, Katerina Loukopoulou's proposal that art films amounted to a national "museum at large" and Eric Schaefer's revelations about the educational effects of "exploitation" films. More than just an examination of a historical moment, Learning With the Lights Off considers how these films have shaped how an American generation conceives of and consumes information today. —Chris Vitiello
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
Viking; 417 pp.
Pauline Kael was a real original—a unique film critic who achieved an unprecedented (and still unrivalled) amount of fame and influence, mostly at The New Yorker. So reading and assessing this book is a unique experience. To use a Kaelism, the near-exasperated rhetorical question: Exactly how is this thing supposed to work?
Kellow covers Kael's lively social life and her questionable professional ethics, but some have taken issue with the long stretches where Kellow mostly just quotes from Kael's reviews. Readers might want him to get back to Kael's dominating relationship with her daughter or hope for him to juice up her rivalry with Andrew Sarris.
But if movie criticism is worth examining, and if Kael is important to you, it's useful and informative having this document of what she was doing with her life when she discovered Brian DePalma or where she saw Pretty Poison. The final chapters, about Kael's retirement and declining health paint a sad, moving image of old age and read something like a eulogy for the kind of critic we had in Kael, someone who could make a living writing about movies.
While most of the external facts of Kael's life are not terribly exciting (Kellow might have made more of some salacious details), he seems to be saying that a life spent at the movies—seeing them, thinking about them, talking about them and, of course, writing about them—is a life worth living. —Nathan Gelgud
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
Scribner; 213 pp.
Whether Don DeLillo's work resembles the world, or the world just resembles Don DeLillo, his first collection of short stories after 15 novels feels like nine tiny pockets of reality. The first story, written in 1979, is reminiscent of Hemingway, albeit with a slight postmodern twist: A couple is trapped on an island, perpetually stuck on the standby list as every flight leaves without them. Each story that follows seems to contain a setting that is its own kind of island—a small college town, a space craft, a minimum security prison, a ghetto, even a man's own mind. As the book spans DeLillo's writing from 1979 to 2011, the characters seem to become more introspective and philosophical. The strangest story in the collection, "Hammer and Sickle," deals with the recent financial collapse, evoking the surreal feel of the ongoing crisis. Two children, acting as anchors on a cable news program, announce the financial ills of Greece and speculate on the future of Dubai as they are watched by their father and other white-collar criminals, all guilty of various financial schemes, in a minimum security prison. DeLillo's tiny reporters play with the rhythm and sound of the language: "Deutsche Bank." "Down." "London—the FTSE One Hundred Index." "Down." "Amsterdam—ING Group." "Down." "The Hang Seng in Hong Kong." "Crude Oil. Islamic bonds." "Down, down, down." The children speak terms they don't understand, in a song-like rhythm, to an audience that can't do anything, while the world burns. The collection doubles as both a great introduction to one of America's most influential contemporary writers and a long-awaited treat for his many fans. —Jaimee Hills
Scribner; 849 pp.
Like his last novel, 2009's ecologically minded Under the Dome, King's latest is something of a departure from the horror genre that made him famous. Although blood, guts and the usual bodily effluvia do make prominent appearances within the novel's 850 pages, for the most part King is again trying his hand at science fiction—and as a consequence the horror in 11/22/1963 is less corporeal than philosophical, even cosmic.
The sci-fi premise that drives the book is simple: crawl deep enough into the back storeroom of Al's Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and you'll come out in an empty field in September 1958. Stay as long as you like—1958 may smell worse than the present, but it tastes much, much better—and no matter how long you were gone, when you come back to 2011 it'll be just two minutes after you left.
As the suggestive title makes clear, King's hero quickly decides to use this oddly specific wormhole to change history for the better. The Kennedy assassination is a "watershed event," a crisis point that a well-prepared time traveler could singlehandedly prevent. All he'll have to do is wait five years in the past, confirm Oswald acted alone and murder him before he can do the job. Unfortunately, it turns out the past doesn't want to be changed—it fights back.
Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination, and 40 years into King's literary career, Stephen King is still the absolute best at what he does—and 11/22/1963 ranks among the best-paced and best-plotted of his books as it barrels toward its inevitable November climax. No one writes a potboiler like King: I essentially read the book nonstop from start to finish, stopping halfway through only to buy a second copy for my dad. For history nerds and sci-fi geeks, this gift can't miss. —Gerry Canavan
I Want My Hat Back
Candlewick Press, 40pp.
There is a bizarre alchemy to this first writing-illustrating effort from children's book author Jon Klassen. The story is blindingly simple: A wide-eyed, seemingly mouthless bear has lost his hat and politely asks other wide-eyed, seemingly mouthless animals if they have seen it, only to get a series of negative responses ... particularly from a very surly rabbit, who is wearing a hat himself. Eventually the bear has an epiphany that leads to a hilarious albeit dark ending. There is nothing more to the book than these simple drawings and prose, but Klassen brings a sense of deadpan comic timing to the proceedings that will make both children and the adults reading the story to them laugh out loud. Who knows, for some young readers it might be their first exposure to the concepts of dark humor and dramatic irony. And the appeal to older readers is clear; this has apparently started an Internet meme of artists drawing various fictional characters without their hats going "I Want My Hat Back." We don't quite understand this either. Sometimes a bear looking for a hat is just a bear looking for a hat. —Zack Smith
Lost Memory of Skin
HarperCollins; 416 pp.
A stifling study in alienation, Banks' latest delves deeply into two people who are completely isolated for very different reasons. The Kid, a convicted sex offender who spent most of his adolescence awash in Internet porn and, despite his conviction, has never had sex of any kind, lives under a bridge in a South Florida city. The Professor, a compulsive eater and liar, is an accomplished academic who takes a seemingly professional interest in the Kid's circumstances. Neither man can come close to achieving any meaningful contact with another human, and if that sounds like an unpleasant read, well, it is and it isn't. Whenever despair and emotional claustrophobia threaten to overwhelm the plot, Banks gently draws the reader back in with treatises on South Florida swampland, the impossible situation faced by sex offenders required to stay a certain distance from schools and parks and daycare centers in cities where that can't be done, and the relative rarity of self-awareness. —Forrest Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 170 pp.
If I told you a fledgling writer had published his first book of poetry, you might not even finish this sentence. If I told you surrealist illustrator Lou Beach had ripped the best of his made-up status updates from Facebook (back when those updates were limited to 420 characters), it would no doubt pique your interest. Add in a sampling of Beach's Magritte-inspired collages, and you'll find yourself in a full-court press with literati like NPR over how fast you should rush out and pick up this book.
Beach, whose illustrations appear in Wired and The New Yorker, is best known for his album covers dating back to the '70s. His surrealist constructs for Weather Report and Brian Eno made you feel high even if you didn't smoke dope. For 420 Characters, Beach turned to prose, meticulously crafting fictional vignettes with the same attention he brings to his collages. Some are surreal or noir—all melting eyeball and smoking gun—but many are poignant slice of life, full of bittersweet observation. They are not always successful but never not interesting.
With only one entry per page, the collection comes off as featherweight at first, and you could easily plow through the entries in short order. This would be unsatisfying though, as each tale seems designed to be read in isolation. Indeed, Beach's stories are not as effective together as, I imagine, they would be popping in at random on your Facebook feed, a chocolate-covered non sequitur each afternoon.
Clearly 420 Characters is a gift book, one you purchase for that hard-to-buy-for creative type on your holiday list. Just be sure to pick up a copy soon enough to read it yourself before you wrap it. —JP Trostle
The Great Enigma
Tomas Tranströmer; trans. Robin Fulton
New Directions; 262 pp.
The new collected poems for the 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature include 13 previous collections and a prose memoir—more than 50 years of work, which is a lot to fit into 262 pages. Primarily a nature poet, Tranströmer is at times minimalist, at times epic, writing both haiku and book-long poems. His impressive metaphors are loaded into every page, drawing the reader into fantastical descriptions of reality. But his surreal imagery describes very real things; in fact the Nobel selection committee singled out precisely this feature of Tranströmer's work, saying his "condensed, translucent images" give us "fresh access to reality." In the poem "From the Island, 1860," the evocative line "Her tears froze into a pair of glasses" describes an obvious impossibility—but also a metaphor for tear-blurred vision, or the pall of sadness in one's view. The poem "Homeward" has a similar moment when "A telephone call ran out in the night and glittered over the countryside." There is whimsy in his metaphors even when he discusses a darker political subject, as in the poem "National Insecurity," which begins: "The Undersecretary leans forward and draws an X/ and her eardrops dangle like swords of Damocles." The breadth of this lifelong work can go from an imagined gondola ride between Franz Liszt and Wagner (father and son-in-law) to the simplicity of "Winter's Gaze," in which he describes what happens when "A sudden chill, from a great distance, meets me./ The moment blackens/ and remains like an axe-cut in a tree trunk." —Jaimee Hills
Head Off & Split
TriQuarterly; 80 pp.
"We begin with history: the slave codes of South Carolina." That's how Nikki Finney opened her acceptance speech for the National Book Award for poetry last month—a text itself more intense, relevant to everyday life, and, well, poetic than most poems you've ever read. Finney's fourth book, Head Off & Split, sustains that incantatory intensity through conversations with African-American figures such as Rosa Parks and Condi Rice. Her voice is particularly affecting when she uses it to directly address crucial events in black history. In "Left," Finney uses the children's choosing-sides rhyme "Eenee Menee Mainee Mo" as a disembodied refrain throughout a description of a woman abandoned on the roof of a house flooded by Hurricane Katrina. With persistently refocusing line breaks, the poem indicts the helicopter pilot who shoots footage of—but doesn't help—the woman, who holds up a misspelled sign for help. The helicopter "catches all of this on patriotic tape, / but does not land, and does not drop dictionary, / or ladder." Finney zooms in breathtakingly close to everything she considers and, holding your head steady in gentle but vise-strong hands, never lets you look away. —Chris Vitiello