Category Archives: Fun Stuff

Educate Yourself for Black History Month

Alex Crowley -- February 12th, 2014

Black History Month should mean more than paying lip service to a handful of notable historical figures; we should actually be educating ourselves on the real struggles of Black Americans, the hidden histories of events we may only know in passing, and the contributions of both groups and individuals whose work has been overshadowed because of pernicious racial privileging. To that end, here are a number of recent books that can help us get closer to that ideal.

•     •     •

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis (Knopf). The beginning is always a good place to start, and this, the third and final installment of Davis’s “three-volume study of the intellectual, cultural, and moral realities of slavery in the West since classical times,” covers the Civil War period and aftermath. Here, he addresses the complexities that arose in the wake of slavery’s abolition, an act that nevertheless failed to stop racism and whose repercussions are still felt today. The whole series is a masterpiece and a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

•     •     •

Stokely: A Life by Peniel E. Joseph (Basic/Civitas). Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) was a leading light in the “heroic era” of the Civil Rights movement. He played a role in the Freedom Rides, was a leader of the SNCC, and held the title of Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. Co-credited with coining the term “institutional racism,” his politics were decidedly more radical than many figures in the Civil Rights movement, and he actively espoused Black Power and, later, after splitting with the Black Panthers and going into self-imposed exile, a socialist form of Pan-Africanism.

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Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson (Prometheus Books). The deep and complicated relationship between African-Americans and guns is probably older than the republic itself, but it surely goes back at least to Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, who both claimed “that gun ownership for blacks helped level the disparity between races,” as guns not only helped keep white antagonism at bay, but also provided occasional work opportunities. That attitude continues to the present day, and notably provided some of the philosophical underpinnings of groups like the Black Panthers. Even supposed practitioners of non-violence like M.L.K., Jr. were known to carry firearms for protection.*

•     •     •

Other recent notables include:

Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear by Aram Goudsouzian (FSG)

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd S. Purdum (Holt)

The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen (Bloomsbury)

Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane A. Diouf. (NYU)

Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade by Randy J. Sparks (Harvard)

*And on that note, Charles E. Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic) just arrived on our shelves and addresses this very phenomenon.

Don’t Just Be Alone on Valentine’s Day, Be Alone with a Book!

Alex Crowley -- February 6th, 2014

Next Friday is the 85th anniversary of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. To commemorate this pivotal event in Prohibition-era America, I recommend these three books on love, lust, and not murdering your sworn enemies…

True Tales of Lust and Love edited by Anna David (Soft Skull). This collection features the work of a bevy of fine female writers and grew out of the L.A.-based live storytelling series. As our review noted, “it’s a hysterical and touching read perfect for young women still figuring out their way in the dating world, though recommended for everyone.”

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Some Choice Quotes from Important Science books of 2013

Alex Crowley -- December 19th, 2013

These three science books should be on everyone’s radar because they are fantastic.

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The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

David Waltner-Toews (ECW)

the origin of feces“Our language reflects our thinking, and our thoughts determine the kinds of options we can imagine to the challenges we face in life.”

“In part because of this lack of respect for the humanities, and in part because previous global narratives (Christianity, Islam, State Communism) have so often been catastrophically bad, the story many of us have told ourselves has focused on what we have seen to be the ideological ‘neutral’ tale of technology and progress. We have deluded ourselves into believing that this is not a belief system, because it uses science to achieve its ends. But where this has led us, in the past century, is into a place where our stories have been constructed around single problems or built on narrow-minded academic disciplines. We have lived with the illusion that we can solve our problems one by one until they are all solved.”

“Wicked problems… are poorly bounded and contradictory. They are difficult to solve because information is incomplete, or the requirements of those who want the problem solved keep changing. They can be defined from a variety of apparently incompatible perspectives, so that there is neither a definitive problem formulation nor an optimal solution. Worst of all, the solutions to some aspects of the problem may create or reveal other problems.”

“At the core of the wicked mess of shit, food, and ecological sustainability is a challenge of theory. We have developed ad hoc solutions, using a Henry Ford, linear, industrial model of nature. This theory works in a factory, or in a laboratory, but wreaks havoc in the world outside those confines.”

“From an ecological perspective, when we observe the production and management of manure, we should be thinking not only of contamination and health in relation to individuals, but also about the implications for seed dispersal, movement of water, elements, and nutrients; bacterial ecology; soil replenishment and impoverishment; and the long-term flourishing of life on Earth.”

“We cannot assume that any of the organizational strategies we have built over the past few millennia will enable us to adapt to what is coming tomorrow.”

“The prices for human excrement were so high in eighteenth-century Japan that stealing human shit was an acknowledged crime, punishable by imprisonment.”

“Global trade in human food and animal feeds—more generally, our particular ways of manipulating the services ecosystems provide—represents an unprecedented transformation and re-distribution of organic matter in the biosphere.”

“Viewing politics and governance only as they relate to individuals and states is not helpful in solving the challenges of living in an overcrowded, unstable, interactive, extremely puzzling world.”

———

The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution

Henry Gee (U. of Chicago)

the accidental species“There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium.”

“Darwin… used the word ‘evolved’ to mean growth and development of a complex form from a simpler one, and used it to draw an analogy with the altogether grander process in which life itself would from simple beginnings become more diverse, elaborate, and complex. Darwin had a term for this process to which evolution was a mere analogy: he called it ‘descent with modification,’ a much less loaded term than ‘evolution.’”

“Evolution has neither memory nor foresight. It has no scheme, design, or plan…. The patterns we see in life are the results of evolution, and are contingent. In and of itself, evolution carries no implication of progression or improvement. Absolutely none. Zip. Nada.”

“The beautiful thing about natural selection is its simplicity. All it requires to work are four things, three of which are readily apparent with eyes to see. They are heritable variation, the ever-changing environment, superabundance of offspring, and the passage of long periods of time.”

“The evolution of the human brain, like the evolution of anything else, must be thought about in terms of Darwin’s tangled bank, rather than the misreading of evolution as linear, progressive, and governed by purpose.”

———

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Ben Goldacre (Faber and Faber)

bad pharma“Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments…. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all.”

“[R]egulators don’t have all the trials, and they don’t share all the ones that they do.”

“Only half of all trials get published, and those with negative results are twice as likely to go missing as those with positive ones.”

“[T]he pharmaceutical industry overall spends about twice as much on marketing and promotion as it does on research and development.”

“In medicine, brand identities are irrelevant, and there’s a factual, objective answer to whether one drug is the most likely to improve a patient’s pain, suffering and longevity. Marketing, therefore, exists for no reason other than to pervert evidence-based decision-making in medicine.”

“The ‘serotonin hypothesis’ for depression, as it is known, was always shaky, and the evidence now is hugely contradictory…. But in popular culture the depression-serotonin theory is proven and absolute, because it has been marketed so effectively.”

“The story of the serotonin hypothesis for depression, and its enthusiastic promotion by drug companies, is part of a wider process that has been called ‘disease-mongering’ or ‘medicalisation’, where diagnostic categories are widened, whole new diagnoses are invented, and normal variants of human experience are pathologised, so they can be treated with pills.”

“So, medicalisation is a mixed bag. We may well find new safe and effective drugs for conditions most of us have never thought of as medical problems before, and they may well improve people’s quality of life, in all kinds of different ways…. But the greatest risk is that we fail to notice that our models of personhood, and what is normal, are being quietly engineered by a $600 billion industry.”

 

Uniquely Compelling and Poignant

Rose Fox -- November 8th, 2013

poignantPW‘s reviews director has issued a ban on the words compellingunique, and poignant in our reviews. When I wrote to my reviewers asking them to avoid these overused terms, they had some creative replies.

Can we portmanteau our way out of this? I’d like to describe a book as “poignelling.” Or maybe “compique.”

I replied that “Poignelling” sounds like the last name of an obscure 1930s politician. Vote Poignelling! Another reviewer suggested that “poignelling” would be the gerund of “poignell”: to speak movingly, at the top of your lungs. A third put in a vote for “unipellant.”

Just replace the word with the definition. “The author rendered the main character’s loss in a poignant manner.” becomes “The author rendered the main character’s loss in a manner painfully sharp to the emotions or senses.”

Alas, this technique would be incompatible with PW review length limits.

Maybe I’ll just switch to various smiley faces.

That sounds much more efficient!

One reviewer asked plaintively whether we could supply a list of substitutes. We could–but then everyone would use them and we’d have to issue another ban three months down the road. It makes much more sense to let each reviewer find their own gripping, unusual, and vibrant (or fascinating, standout, and heartstring-tugging) alternatives.

PW reviewers Adam Lipkin, Steven H Silver, Stefan Dziemanowicz, Michael Levy, and Vicki Borah Bloom contributed their wit and wisdom to this post.

Book Spine Poetry, or Moving with Lots of Books is a Pain

Alex Crowley -- October 10th, 2013

I just moved to a new apartment, and probably like many of you, I don’t own a lot of things, but the thing I own a lot of is books. Boxes, crates, shelves—you name it and it has books in or on it. So to keep from going nutty while I unpacked and (re)organized, I decided to make some book spine poems. Of course there’s always some measure of narcissism in a little project like this (“ooh, look at all the cool books I have!“), but I also think seeing someone else’s personal library is a window into their head (however small the window or head). So in that spirit, I’m posting my poems below, and you all should make some and send them our way! Take pics and tweet them to us @pwreviews and we’ll retweet them to all our followers.

better off without ‘em

I am a strange loop

louder than hell

beyond good and evil

you will die

civilization and its discontents

leaning against the rain

against architecture

the damned

in baltic circles

near to the wild heart

you are not dead

from the observatory

on the spectrum of possible deaths

to keep love blurry

rain

down the rabbit hole

on the tracks of game

collapse

either way I’m celebrating

consciousness explained

modern music and after

a brief history of time

blood, class, and empire

coming of age as a poet

making your own days

laughable loves

by word of mouth

seven american deaths and disasters

What the Heck Makes a Book “Best”-worthy?

Alex Crowley -- September 26th, 2013

Right now, in a massive collective effort to determine the best books of 2013, PW’s staff of certified, unassailable geniuses are poring over stacks of books already vetted and approved over the course of the year by our stable of reviewers (they literally all live in a comically oversized stable in Ulster County, NY). It’s a fun but arduous process that will lead to us editors gathering in a pub nearby and arguing about the merits of such-and-such’s book versus that other one that’s clearly unfit for the honor of a spot on the top-10 list (and thus must be content with a place in the bottom 90 *boos* *hisses* or, horror of horrors, not on the long list at all *gasps* *widespread fainting*).

Artist's rendering of our Reviewer Stable

Artist’s rendering of our Reviewers’ Stable

This whole process of making a list of “best” things is, of course, terrifyingly subjective. Frankly, we the editors don’t even necessarily agree on what “best” signifies. We each have our own vague idea(s); some abstract platonic concept existing for itself in the void. But is that even helpful? Probably not, since that entails defining a bunch of other slippery concepts that should be working in perfect symbiosis. So maybe the best we can do for now is run the rule over some of those characteristics that will eventually take their Voltron form (and I speak here from a non-fiction perspective only, the concerns of fiction or poetry differ in both obvious and subtle ways). Anyway, welcome to the sausage factory! Continue reading

Chris Gore Delivers the Poop On Celebrities

Calvin Reid -- August 14th, 2013

 

celebritypoopEverybody poops, right? Or so we understand from Taro Gomi’s 1977 classic kid’s picture book of the same name. Now, thanks to Chris Gore, comedian, writer, “Podcrasher”, geeky film expert, and former G4TV personality, we also understand that it includes celebrities. Gore, along with the reluctant assistance of his artist/daughter Haley Gore, has self-published Celebrities Poop, a tongue-in-cheek send-up of Gomi’s classic kids’ book that provides more visual information on the topic than anyone probably wants.

Yes, Gore, who actually launched the book with a party and a show of original artwork from the book at Comic-Con International in San Diego, has reprised Gomi’s Everybody Poops with a goofy twist. While Gomi offered charming and childlike drawings of animals doing their business, Gore offers similiar childlike drawings of Larry King, Olivia Munn, Lady Gaga, Howard Stern, Michael Moore and many others, well, squatting for our edification. If you can’t figure out just who is being depicted taking a dump, there’s a helpful chart at the end of the book with all the names. No, the book is not for kids, and yes, it’s all for laughs and literally so.

Among his many talents, Gore does stand-up comedy around L.A. and he’s got a comedy album, also called Celebrities Poop, available as a download through iTunes. Gore says that back in the day, after a performance a comedian could sell CDs, but the download era leaves much to be desired—it’s not very sexy handing out download codes. “Rather than just offer a download code,” he told PW, “I can offer fans a book and a download code to the album. It’s an experiment.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chris Gore

Gore calls Celebrities Poop a fake kids book, “a page by page parody” of the original and says he even did research. “I went to a list of the most famous people in the world and looked through the top pop culture names and tried to pick the ones I thought would have a sense of humor about this.” The, uh, poopers depicted include Olivia Munn, a former colleague on G4TV, now starring in the HBO show News Hour. He indeed wrote the book himself—“it’s not that many words,” he added laughing—and dragooned his daughter Haley into doing the art. “She’s a very sophisticated art student who imitated the art style of the Gomi book,” Gore said emphasizing that Haley’s real artwork is very different. Haley apparently declined to be a part of this project at first but finally relented after appeals from dad. In a note in the book, she calls the artwork, “the illegitimate child I will hide under the stairs.”

The book sells for $19.95, includes the download code for the album and Gore has printed a couple thousand copies of the book and does all the fulfillment himself—he’s selling it through Etsy.com. He says “the reaction has been great,” and added, “hopefully a real publisher will come along and take it over.”

Is the Screen Always Worse Than the Page?

Rachel Deahl -- August 26th, 2011

The critics have been rather unkind towards One Day (unfairly so, if you ask me), but all the hullabaloo about the tepidly-received adaptation of David Nicholls’s novel has made a favorite parlor game bubble to the surface: can movie versions of books ever compare to the original? (At NyMag.com many fans are talking about books that Hollywood shouldn’t touch;  The Atlantic took One Day as an opportunity to discuss some of the eternal problems with romance on screen.)

As Slate critic Dana Stevens noted in her (mostly positive reviews) of the current Graham Greene adaptation, Brighton Rock, there is “some pretty robust evidence” proving great literature does not usually become great films. Of course, as Stevens then goes onto explain, Graham Greene, and this thriller in particular, has proven unusually fertile ground for many filmmakers.

For awhile I had a theory that literary novels were the toughest to translate to film. Genre works—a dicey and tricky description in and of itself—were the way to go. This, I assumed, accounted for the fact that so many of my favorite science fiction films are based on Phillip K. Dick novels (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall); that a few of my favorite Hitchcock novels are based on Daphne Du Maurier works (Rebecca and The Birds); and that Anthony Minghella, a director who is no stranger to turning popular, bestselling literary works into films, was at his best working off of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with The Talented Mr. Ripley. (I should note, though, that anyone who watches Hollywood science fiction films has probably enjoyed something from Phillip K. Dick, given his all-over-the-map-ness in this area—the dude has well over 100 film credits to his name!)
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Will the Most Important ‘Housewife’ Get Real In His Book?

Rachel Deahl -- August 23rd, 2011

There’s always been something a little depressing, and a little fascinating, about Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. The recent suicide of Russell Armstrong, fleeting cast member of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (and husband to full-fledged cast member Taylor Armstrong), got me thinking about why I’ve been watching the series for so long…and why I haven’t been able to fully turn away.

On some level I think it’s the Gatsby-esque quality of the show that’s kept me tuning in. Sure it’s crass, but the “real housewives” are strivers, just like Gatsby. While none of the Housewives are in search of something pure, like love—even the single ones admit the most important thing in a man is the size of his bank account—they are all searching. The Housewives feel like bastardized versions of Jimmy Gatz living the lifestyle of Jay Gatsby. (Gatsby, after all, did make the money he spent, even if he made it in an unsavory way.) This has been the brilliance of the Real Housewives and, while it didn’t take Russell Armstrong’s suicide to point it out, the fact that he hanged himself in a rental apartment after moving out of his McMansion in the midst of a dissolving marriage and a mounting pile of debt, certainly does highlight it.

I’ve watched more episodes of the Real Housewives than I care to admit, on and off, since the series launched in Orange County and began spinning off across the country–New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, DC. As the seasons wore on, and the “characters” became more shrill and despicable, the real joy of the show was watching these women—most of whom had married into new money—deal with the elephant in the room: they were going broke while they were getting paid to look rich. The irony! The hilarity! The anguish! It was a brilliant and lucky moment for Bravo, which had unknowingly tapped into the zeitgeist: it had a suite of reality shows about Americans who’d been living on easy credit and trumped-up housing values just as the bill was coming due.
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PW at the Movies: A Review of ‘One Day’

Rachel Deahl -- August 17th, 2011

I know what you’re thinking: PW stopped going to the movies! It’s a fair assumption-the last time we got all critical on a cinematic literary adaptation was, cough, 2010. But we have been going to the movies…and we’re still as critical as ever. We’ve kept you waiting too long so, without further ado, your favorite book-review-editing-and-news-covering-and-sometime-movie-reviewing duo, Rachel Deahl and Mike Harvkey, give you the skinny on One Day:

Rachel says: I have a love-hate relationship with romantic comedies. Love-hate might not even be the right term—it’s more Jekyll and Hyde. I love a cloying love story as much as the next gal, and I’ll watch drivel in the name of a decent meet-cute, but the bar with romantic comedies has been set so low that most genre offerings these days feel like an affront to female actresses and female viewers. Romantic comedies entered a dark age somewhere in between the time John Cusack ruined teenage girls for all other men in the 1980s as Lloyd Dobbler and Julia Roberts convinced us that hookers really could be carefree and downright buoyant, in the early ‘90s. That Hollywood has issues with women being funny—see the myriad stories about all the producers in Tinseltown who said Bridesmaids would never make a dime because it was headlined by an all-female cast and, gasp, features chicks doing such dude-like things as being sexually aggressive and flat-out gross—is one problem. The other problem seems to be laziness: if audiences already know what’s going to happen (boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy regains girl) what’s the point of filling the gaps along the way with multi-dimensional characters or, you know, humor?

By the aforementioned standards, One Day, which some people might classify as a romance more than romantic comedy—I say it’s the latter—is a joy. It’s not terribly inventive, the plot device of following a friends-to-lovers couple over the same day for 20 years is particularly forced, but it works. The second feature from Random House Films (after the disappointing 2007 film Reservation Road), One Day, based on David Nicholls’s novel of the same name, shows a surprising amount of humor and depth.

British university classmates Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) have a brush with a potential one-night stand on a boozy night after graduation but, instead, start a decades-long friendship that is always skirting the line between friendship and something more. As their lives diverge but continue to cross—the bookish and self-deprecating Emma blossoms while the womanizing Dexter slips into an indulgent life of drugs and B-list celebrity-dom—the snapshots provide a glimpse into the evolving relationship as well as the changing characters.

Although the structure is contrived, it sets a welcome pace. The jumping-around also offers a bit of relief for some unexpectedly dark, though also pat, episodes involving Dexter’s downward spiral.

Nicholls wrote the screenplay and one of the strongest elements of One Day is that, even at its most expected turns (and there are a few), it maintains an air of legitimacy through above-average dialogue and nuanced characters. One Day also does a fine job of subtly capturing the ‘80s and ‘90s, through a British prism. Director Lone Sherfig, who skillfully evoked the London of the ‘60s in An Education, ably brings us through the years of mix tapes, combat boots and coke without losing sight of her focus: Dexter and Emma.

Mike Says: Being a guy, though not necessarily a dude (or, yet, a man, sadly), I don’t really have a love-hate bond with the rom-com. Basically I ignore the genre entirely until the wheat separates naturally from the chaff and one movie more than all others simply must be seen this fall, spring, etc.—or I go all selfless and suggest to my wife that we see that nice fluffy flick playing around the corner, a flick she may have mentioned in passing, a flick that she will not exit crying at the horrors of humanity, as typically happens when I make selfish cinematic choices, as films like Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, or The Killers are more my speed.

Thus, my take on One Day differs a bit from Rachel’s, though ultimately I agree: it works. Boy, does it work. It’s the Million Dollar Baby of Romantic Comedies; its efficacy simply won’t be denied. Resistance is futile. George Lucas once said, “Drama is easy. Grab a kitten, hold its head in a puddle,” or words to that effect. Love him, hate him, or both, he’s right, and it is this level of drama—and nuance—that One Day achieves. Which is fine. Not everything has to be subtle, deep, profound. The book wasn’t, and Lone Scherfig has captured its spirit in her medium. One Day is a Tragic Romance. A film told in a year at a time can’t capture subtlety; it’s simply not in its DNA. It exists to capture the big events, the major successes, the crushing defeats. Life! Catharsis means “to purge” and One Day is like an emotional Heimlich maneuver.

For me, it’s the details that make One Day break down (though it hardly matters). Why does Lone Scherfig continue to cast Americans to play Brits? In An Education, Peter Sarsgaard could actually speak the Queen’s English without looking like he’d just come from the dentist. He actually did a great job. The same can’t be said for Anne Hathaway, whose accent veers wildly and never seems to settle. And look, there’s Patricia Clarkson, doing it too, and achieving the same level of unease. Scherfig is Danish, not British, and like many outsiders, seems to lack the ear for the subtleties of the English accent. Finally, I simply don’t get Jim Sturgess. Why is he having such a great career? I’ve never seen him in anything where he didn’t appear to be acting. In The Way Back, Ed Harris swept the forest floor with him. He and Hathaway don’t really have much chemistry in One Day, which in any other film would be deadly; in One Day, which is more machine than film, we accept that the chemistry they obviously have is a foregone conclusion. Because it is.

Vintage has 265,000 copies the movie tie-in edition in print, and 400,000 copies of the non-tie-in edition.

Rachel Deahl is senior news editor at PW; Mike Harvkey is deputy reviews editor.