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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