Friday, October 31, 2014

The Rorthfuss Banner at UWM Union., Emily St. John Mandel isn't Dystopian Enough, Daniel Relives Gary Hart's Run for Presidency.

1. One reason I love working with the UWM Bookstore is that we get these amazing banners in the Union. Advance event sales for tonight's appearance by Patrick Rothfuss, celebrating the release of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, end at 2 pm CDT. Walk up sales will be available.

2. Very confused about the review of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven in today's New York Times. As my friend Mike said, the review contradicts itself several times. Is the book hopeful or not? Should pandemic books be hard-hitting or not? It also felt a bit rushed, not that I don't rush through my own reviews, but one should note in my defense that I do other things for my job besides review a few books per week.

That makes two mixed-to-negative reviews from The NYT, which is only odd because I have decided (we're forced to do these things for newsletter deadlines) that Station Eleven is on the shortlist for my favorite work of fiction in 2014. Sadly I read more and more novels the second year for book club, which sort of don't qualify. I don't really understand the lateness of the review either, but I'm not going to complain about it, because it worked to the advantage of another book I liked this year, Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again a a Decent Hour.

3. You're probably wondering what I've been reading, and the sad truth is that I've finished almost nothing in the past two months. Of all things, the book that caught my attention is Matt Bai's All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid (Knopf), which came out at the end of September. As an On the Media junkie, I'm rather fascinated by the way media has changed over the years, and Bai, formerly a political correspondent for The New York Times who now is a columnist for Yahoo, not only discusses how the differences between old media (when a newspaper could determine if a story was important enough to cover) and new, but between old journalism and new.

That "week" was the exposure of Gary Hart's dalliance with Donna Rice, a one-time model and friend of Don Henley's who met Hart in Florida and was caught on a boat trip, and yes, the boat really was called Monkey Business. Before Hart, the private shenanigans of politicians stayed private, and only long after their deaths would the revelations come about the women in John F. Kennedy's life, for example. The trade-off for keeping those secrets was intimate access to politicians. The revelations in Gary Hart's life was a sea change in how these secrets were kept; it was partly a reaction to Watergate, partly the mantra of new journalism that the personal is the political, partly confluence of entertainment and politics predicted by Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I also read, many, many years ago), and party the rise of technology, from video cameras to fax machines, that democratized the spreading of news. And you thought it all started with the internet!

After reading this work by Matt Bai (photo credit Robyn Twomey), I was reminded of Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends, who also chronicled the changes in journalism, but more from the angle of the changing relationship between journalists and the law, rather than politics. The relationships morphed in similar ways. Journalists, by choosing to break this sort of confidence, gave up access. As Bai notes, while talking heads pontificate at length about the real candidates, they actually know less than they ever did previously, as the candidates themselves are surrounded by handlers. Bai experienced this firsthand, noting the difference between John McCain's two presidential runs. And of course politics is approached differently when you are a long shot vs. when you are front runner, which was the experience of Gary Hart as well.

The thing about these kind of political books is that you never really know if the book is a game changer or an overly long magazine article until many years later. Bai notes that Richard Ben Craemer's What it Takes, which serves as source material for All the Truth is Out, originally got mixed reviews but has been more appreciated by younger journalists. It strikes me that Bai's book, in the way it captures this changing zeitgeist, and with our realization that privacy is an increasingly rare and fragile concept, might also stand the test of time.

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