Review: ‘The Accidental Life’ by Terry McDonell

The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and WritersThe Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers by Terry McDonell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like any good book, Terry McDonell’s “The Accidental Life” kept me riveted from the get-go, laughing out loud, admiring occasional turns of prose, angered on his behalf and unwilling to turn to the last page.

I even cried at the end.

If that’s unusual behavior for reading a memoir – and a memoir about journalism, writing and editing, of all things – well, McDonell’s is an unusual book. For one thing, it’s not written in the classic, clichéd “And then I …” succession of chapters. (Not that McDonell wouldn’t have had an excuse: the guy was the editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Us Weekly and Sports Illustrated, among others, and even blow-by-blow accounts of his adventures would have been quite entertaining.) Instead, McDonell wrote the book as a series of vignettes, some as short as a sidebar, others worthy of an SI bonus piece. He even offers word counts and “ENDIT”s.

For another, McDonell spends little time blowing his own horn. Oh, you can tell he’s proud of his work – proud of increasing profits and raising circulation, proud of succeeding at the weekly or monthly grind of the magazine business. But what he’s really proud of is giving writers an opportunity. Some are well-known figures he sought out, such as Thomas McGuane or George Plimpton; others are people he helps to elevate to new, and deserved, heights, such as Tim Cahill, who got the job of a lifetime when McDonell made him a go-to correspondent for Outside.

And he loves writers. McDonell is no slouch himself; his prose is diamond-hard, free of the kind of windiness that someone like (well) me would indulge in. (You can see he learned his wire-service lessons well.) But he often breaks to quote from one of the many people he edited or knew, passages that obviously have great emotional meaning to him. He defers. He quotes Liz Tilberis, a fellow editor (she was at Harper’s Bazaar), when she was confronting her death. Or James Salter on his free-spirited days in London. Or Tom Wolfe on LSD.

I’m reminded of generations past, when people were taught to memorize poetry and could quote a verse when grasping for invention. (Witness Robert Kennedy informing a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had died.) It’s a sign of both knowledge and humility, of deep feeling. It’s also a vanishing talent, if “talent” is the right word. McDonell would probably gently offer a better one.

He offers capsule profiles of a number of figures, perhaps most notably McGuane, Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Warren Hinckle. (Hinckle, who edited the seminal ‘60s journal Ramparts, gave Thompson his break as a gonzo journalist.) He’s fair to all, celebrating their strengths and lamenting their flaws. If he has some axes to grind, he’s remarkably dispassionate about them.

Late in the book, he has a chapter on SI’s Rick Reilly, who’d become the magazine’s star with his humor-filled back-page columns. Reilly had become smug about his fame – McDonell describes him as “a cocky teenager” – and when he finally left for ESPN, McDonell wrote an editor’s letter focusing on the future, not the past. Reilly was pissed and wrote McDonell a furious email that ended, “Screw you sideways.” McDonell says that Reilly was right in his fury. I don’t think I would have been so generous. But then again, Reilly had been getting on my nerves for years. (I will give him credit for one of the funniest jokes I ever read in any magazine, that “La Quinta is Spanish for ‘next door to Denny’s,’ ” but that doesn’t make up for years of overpraised casuals. Steve Rushin may have been too heavy on the puns, but I got the feeling the guy’s heart was genuine.)

None of this is to downplay McDonell’s own story, especially if – like me – you’re fascinated by an era when many editors were household names and Time Inc. offered generous expense accounts. He built some magazines from nothing, others into something new, and was fearless about pursuing name writers, even if most of his readers wouldn’t recognize the names.

And when it all comes crashing down after the fat-and-happy ‘90s, McDonell gives the digital world his best shot but, to mix metaphors, he was tilting against a rising tide.

“When we did talk about our journalism, the naïve thinking among most of the editors was that we just needed our resources back,” he writes. “We should have been thinking about content-management systems to deliver what we had.”

It’s revealing that SI came up with a particularly good digital model, but couldn’t make it work in Apple’s iPad platform because Steve Jobs wanted the subscriber data, including credit card numbers. Jobs was thinking about his own model, of course – that’s why Facebook and Google are so powerful – but it ends up killing the eggs, if not the goose. Which is where we stand today, with magazine circulations down even as everything is slapped up on the web, free for the taking.

I have to strain to find failings in “The Accidental Life.” I wish McDonell had offered more about HIS accidental life – the private side, that is. He’s apparently at least once-divorced and, given some anecdotes, unafraid of adventure, but there’s little internal probing. The book is about writing and writers, and for the most part he stays in that lane — when it comes to others, at least.

Still, there’s plenty of soul, even if you have to read between the lines to find it. And much to learn, especially in this age of soulless algorithms.

“When bad editors talk about mix, they mean formula: how much service, how much news, how much celebrity and, most recently perhaps, how many top ten lists of ways to serve kale,” McDonell writes. “They should think about eccentricity: what is the most surprising piece they can run without leaving readers scratching their heads, or alienated and angry.”

It’s no wonder I enjoyed Terry McDonell’s magazines, and it’s no wonder I loved his book. Thanks for the surprises, Terry.

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Review: ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consider the Neanderthal.

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction,” they had many similarities with modern humans. They buried their dead. They wore clothing and lived in built shelters. They were hairless in the way humans are. They cared for one another.

And we hastened their extinction.

We’ve done that a lot, we members of H. sapiens. Sometimes we did so directly, by hunting various animals and birds into extinction. Other times our influence has been indirect, particularly in the modern industrial age, when our migration patterns, use of fossil fuels and general disregard for the natural environment has erased many species. It’s no wonder that many geologists now think of this era as the Anthropocene, named after the impact we humans have had.

But the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It has been here far, far longer than we have – and will be here far, far longer than we will be. In those billions of years, it’s seen five major extinction events. One of them, believed to be a meteor strike, killed off the dinosaurs. The only difference in what may be an eventual sixth extinction is that we seem to be doing it to ourselves, whether through the slow buildup of atmospheric change or – though it’s hopefully avoidable – itchy nuclear trigger fingers.

I picked up “The Sixth Extinction” because I was an admirer of Kolbert’s New Yorker articles on the subject. And yet the book wasn’t as downbeat as I thought. At worst it takes the geologist’s long view – that we’re here for a moment, and even if we make the best of things, this planet has seen many changes and we’re almost certainly going to be one of them.

And at best it’s actually hopeful. Sure, we’ve caused a lot of damage, but at least we’re aware of it and could adapt – or even change its progress.

Still, we’ve done a bang-up job in screwing things up. For all the talk of climate change in terms of air temperature, perhaps the most powerful chapters are about the oceans. The pH of our vast waters is changing, and that’s meant the decay of coral reefs and the disappearance of sea creatures dependent on just the right chemical content. So much of the food chain is dependent on calcifiers, species that build the structures other species are dependent on. With the growing acidification of the seas, that ability is being literally eaten away.

“Lab experiments have indicated that calcifiers will be particularly hard-hit by falling ocean pH, and the list of the disappeared at Castello Aragonese confirms this,” Kolbert writes. “In the pH 7.8 zone, three-quarters of the missing species are calcifiers.”

Forget about the proverbial canary in the coal mine; try the calcifiers in the sea.

At least “The Sixth Extinction,” like Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us,” is an engaging read. Kolbert is a fine writer and terrific guide to planetary decline, mixing in geology, paleontology, chemistry and good old travel writing in equal measure. I learned something on almost every page.

I was particularly struck by her description of why the Neanderthals no longer exist: Among other things, they apparently lacked a curiosity gene that humans have. While Homo sapiens came out of Africa and traveled the world – sailing uncharted seas and moving into unknown lands – Neanderthals, it seems, didn’t leave their home places. Humans who encountered them probably mated with them, in fact, and carried those genes on our travels. Genetics has shown that most of us are between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal.

So, though pure Neanderthals are gone from this planet, they’re not gone from our DNA. We’re just a bunch of mutts, we humans. Take that, racists!

Humans still have an uphill battle in maintaining the Earth. Even if we can stop our profligate ways, there’s still the risk of a hit of space debris, an explosion from the planet’s interior, or the literal fallout from a nuclear war. Still, if anything sentient survives into the next millennia, I hope a copy of “The Sixth Extinction” is around to be read by them. And I hope they learn as much as I did.

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Review: ‘Endurance’ by Scott Kelly

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to go into space, and I know I never will.

I know I never will because I’m 52 years old, and the world of “2001: A Space Odyssey” I wanted to be a part of – a world of Pan Am shuttles and space station Hiltons and, obviously, regular use of both by mere Earthlings – is decades away, if it ever happens at all. I will either be too old or too dead to try them, and thus will be spending the remainder of my life gravitationally attached to this oblate spheroid.

Fortunately, if space must remain the domain of well-trained astronauts, we have people like Scott Kelly to tell us what it’s like.

Kelly freely admits he was a ne’er-do-well student probably ticketed for a middling life until he stumbled on Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” early in college. (“The Right Stuff” is probably my favorite Wolfe book, too, and considering that I love most of what Wolfe has written, that’s saying something.) Suddenly he had a purpose. He wanted to be an astronaut. However, that meant mastering math, physics and engineering, excelling in the military, becoming an accomplished jet pilot and being selected by NASA.

As he writes, often humbly, in his memoir “Endurance,” he pulled it off.

“Endurance” alternates between chapters describing Kelly’s “Year in Space” – 2015-16, when he set the record for consecutive days by an American on board the space station – and his push to get there. He seldom spares himself, writing matter-of-factly about his initial lack of discipline, his occasional foolishness as a Navy pilot (in one incident, he went overboard after drinking too much and could easily have died) and the divorce from his first wife, who – at least as of the book’s writing – barely speaks to him.

However, what makes his memoir so gripping, and what raises it above the level of the overcoming-adversity book it could have been, is his sense of wonder. Inside Kelly is still that college kid reading “The Right Stuff” and pondering the heavens. It’s when he’s describing those moments – staring at the Earth from the cupola (the space station’s viewing room) or, during spacewalks, noting the fragility of the tether connecting him to the station – that the book almost brought me to tears. You can feel Kelly’s awe. How I’ve stared at the night sky and felt that feeling myself, wishing to see it from the other side.

Which is not to say astronaut life is all zero-G dances to the “Blue Danube.”

There’s the impact of zero-G, for one. What seems so natural in “2001” (or “Star Wars,” or any movie set in space) is actually quite unnatural for human beings. Kelly gets headaches as his brain tries to figure out which end is up. A crewmate spends several days throwing up. Their bodies start wasting away, since there’s less need for the muscle and bone that keeps us upright and ambulatory. Makes you wonder how easy it would be for Dr. Heywood Broun, or his Pan Am flight attendants.

Then there’s the space station itself: a remarkable creation, but one that seems put together with chewing gum and baling wire. The station struggles to keep up with its resident humans’ oxygen needs – carbon dioxide builds up all too easily – and the toilet craps out (sorry) a couple times, which means that it has to be fixed … while its parts threaten to float away. Frankly, it’s amazing the space station has held up as well as it has, given the lack of passion and funding for space exploration among national governments.

Finally, Kelly acknowledges how difficult it is to be hundreds of miles away from home – not just in another part of the world, but literally above it. He can’t step outside for a breather; he can’t go shopping or drinking or simply grab a change of scene. In a moving section near the end of “Endurance,” he talks about what he’s missed:

I miss cooking. I miss chopping fresh food, the smell vegetables give up when you first slice into them. … I miss grocery stores, the shelves of bright colors and the glossy tile floors and the strangers walking the aisles. … I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. … I miss the feeling of resting after opposing gravity all day. … I miss showers. I miss running water in all its forms: washing my face, washing my hands.

Amazing what you take for granted, simply existing on this planet.

“Endurance” isn’t perfect. The writing (with Margaret Lazarus Dean) can be workmanlike – not dull, but not at the level of its most heartfelt sections. I would have liked more information on Kelly’s crewmates, particularly the Russians — though, to his credit, he offers up the occasional tart comparison. (If NASA is by-the-book to the point of absurdity, the Russians are sometimes casual to the point of imprudence.)

I’m glad Kelly was blunt about the stresses of space, though. The training alone would eliminate me, all that drownproofing and roughing it in the Russian woods. And having nearly passed out after trying an “anti-gravity workout,” in which you do pushups and situps while hanging from the ceiling, I can’t imagine how I’d survive life in the space station … never mind the trip to and from the place. (Kelly describes the ride back in a Soyuz capsule as “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, while on fire.” And he loves it.)

So I’d never make it in space unless Pan Am, or whoever, made it reasonably comfortable. But Kelly has made it in space, and has done so with an open-mindedness that makes “Endeavor” a welcome, and surprisingly deep, addition to space-oriented literature – including “The Right Stuff.”

In a classy move, Kelly called Tom Wolfe from space late in his journey to thank him for the inspiration. In turn, I’d like to thank Kelly for taking me along on his trip. Godspeed.

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Review: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can see why “A Wrinkle in Time” is beloved.

The hero of Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning novel is a girl on the edge of adulthood, still unusual in fantasy and science fiction and particularly unlikely back in 1962, when the book was published. The book is imaginative, whether using tesseracts as a means of transport or through the invention of three ancients of the universe, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. And its invocation of love as the cosmos’ essential ingredient remains resonant.

I didn’t much like it.

I admired it, certainly, for all the reasons I listed. But as a story I found it a slog. In short, Meg Murry’s father, a scientist, has disappeared. Her brother, Charles Wallace, seems to be in tune with the universe and suspects he’s vanished to another point in space-time. A boy from school, Calvin, joins their group, and thanks to the three ancients, they’re off to find Prof. Murry. They learn that there’s a dark IT (I found it hard to read that without thinking of Stephen King’s clown) that clouds certain planets, and also that Prof. Murry is being held captive on a planet of order-following, brain-dampening creatures.

Sounds fascinating, right? But the characters, particularly Meg and her boyfriend-to-be, Calvin, are two-dimensional (perhaps appropriate given their dimension-hopping), with Meg pouty and Calvin Boy Scout-polite. (He addresses Meg’s father as “sir,” not even “Professor Murry.”) The book travels from point to point without much point, besides offering tidbits of L’Engle’s wonderful imagination. The end comes so abruptly I wondered if L’Engle had to rush “Wrinkle” to her publisher.

And the dialogue. Ugh.

I winced every time the story returned to Meg, Calvin and Meg’s brother Charles Wallace – which was pretty much every page. While the Mrses were grandly entertaining – I particularly enjoyed Mrs Who’s endless quotations — the children spoke like they’d just emerged from a Dick and Jane book or a bad movie script. I don’t think children talked like this in 1912, never mind 1962 (perhaps I should get my copy of “Penrod” off the shelf to see), and their words called attention to their flat characterizations.

Some random examples:

“Sure, we all know that. And he’s supposed to have left your mother and gone off with some dame,” Calvin says early on. “Some dame”? Had Calvin been spending time with James Cagney?

“No!” Meg shouts later in the novel. “I know our world isn’t perfect, Charles, but it’s better than this. This isn’t the only alternative! It can’t be!” Exclamation point!

Meg seldom “says,” too. She shouts. She cries. She objects. I can hear Elmore Leonard – he of the terse “he said, she said” dialogue – turning in his grave.

OK, that’s not fair. “A Wrinkle in Time” was written for children. But I couldn’t help but think it.

Having not read the book when I was a child, I thought I’d be treated to one of those timeless classics that still read well when you’re all grown up. (Roald Dahl succeeded with his works, but maybe it’s because he has a mean streak the gentle Ms. L’Engle lacks.) Sometimes L’Engle manages to strike the tone of Carrollian whimsy she’s pursuing, and yeah, I assume if you’re a young girl (or young boy, perhaps slightly older than Meg’s brother Charles Wallace), it’s probably remarkable.

But in general, now that I’ve read it, I wonder what all the fuss is about. I can’t say “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t worth reading, but if I could tesser, I would travel back a few days and devote my attention to something else.

Or maybe find a child and read it, aloud, to them. They wouldn’t even have to call me “sir.”

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Review: ‘Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine’ by Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone MagazineSticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a friend who isn’t interested in reading “Sticky Fingers,” the new biography of Rolling Stone co-founder and media mogul Jann Wenner. He explained that after reading too many rock ‘n’ roll biographies that are essentially litanies of sex, drugs, bad behavior, sex, drugs, and sex and drugs, he’s not interested in another one.

I can’t really blame him, but with a caveat: “Sticky Fingers” (an oddly appropriate title for the digit-in-every-pie Wenner) isn’t really about sex and drugs. It’s about money and power.

Wenner was born to money – new money, but money nonetheless. His father, Edward (whose last name was originally Weiner), founded a San Francisco-based company selling baby formula. It was the beginning of the baby boom, and business thrived.

His mother, known as Sim, was an unhappy housewife – a lesbian who thought she wanted a standard family life, but quickly realized it was a gilded cage. She and Wenner’s father divorced when he was a teenager.

Wenner – born “Jan,” a spelling he changed during his college years at Berkeley – was a precocious child who, like his mother, grappled with his sexuality. Unlike her, however, he didn’t come to terms with it until well into adulthood. It’s a plotline that comes to the fore throughout “Sticky Fingers,” often presented in gossipy ways. I’m not sure Hagan could have been higher-minded in discussing it, but after awhile the list of Wenner’s affairs, with men and women, becomes boring despite its alleged salaciousness.

The blunter throughline, however, is money. Wenner is presented as always on the make, a Sammy Glick for the Age of Aquarius.

Rolling Stone, which he co-founded with San Francisco music writer Ralph J. Gleason, does have its ideals, but Wenner never fools himself – as its staffers sometimes do – that he’s in it for justice. He sees his generation the way Madison Avenue did: as a bunch of free-spending consumers, whether buying LPs, cigarette papers and stereos or – later – cars, computers, diapers and liquor. That 1980s “Perception/Reality” ad campaign reflected Wenner’s true values.

And he wasn’t wrong: Apparently a lot of Rolling Stone readers DID vote for Ronald Reagan, despite the stories in William Greider’s politics column. (Of course, as one staffer notes, Greider’s work was always some of the least-read in the ‘80s version of the magazine.)

Which is not to say that the self-styled “Citizen Wenner,” who loved the movie “Citizen Kane,” didn’t also pride himself on creating a bold, muckraking magazine. One turning point was running the lengthy 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview, which smashed some of the Beatles’ myths and, not coincidentally, boosted circulation at a time when the magazine was running aground financially. Another was hiring Hunter S. Thompson, who gave its political journalism a distinctive voice – also expressed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas and Joe Klein.

In typical Wenner fashion, however, he managed to alienate John Lennon by pursuing more money out of the interview – publishing a book under RS’ aegis, one that Lennon explicitly told him not to do. It was not unusual behavior; over the years, Wenner would make enemies of friends, often shrugging it off as the price of business. (Even Gleason, whom Wenner idolized, fell away.)

But hey, business was very good. As RS’ chief stockholder, Wenner started living a life that was unavailable to many run-of-the-mill magazine editors. First he hung around with rock stars and record men, befitting their chief courtier. Then it became producers (“SNL’s” Lorne Michaels) and the Aspen/Sun Valley elite. The residences got more ostentatious; so did the overall lifestyle. I gasped when Wenner got a $300 million loan to buy back some stock and “would pay back nary a dime … funneling all the profits directly into his lifestyle.” This was in 2006; you know how the story ends.

I also gasped – or grimaced – upon reading how Wenner protected friends at the expense of journalism. It’s long been known that he’s played favorites on the review pages, making sure his pals in the Rolling Stones get glowing reviews for their crummy post-“Tattoo You” albums. (Of course, this may be payback for the crummy reviews folks like Lenny Kaye gave now-classic Stones albums like “Exile on Main Street.”) But I was surprised to read that he also gave interviews and cover stories to their subjects for vetting.

Bad form, Jann.

But, after awhile, the gasping and grimacing gave way to simply going along. Though the book makes a nice corrective to Alex Gibney’s too-glowing documentary on RS (which was produced in cooperation with the magazine), it’s missing the depth of Gibney’s interviews, which provided some nice context for the magazine’s evolution from music rag to respected periodical. It’s as if Hagan took one person’s jibe at Jann – that he simply rode a good idea for all it was worth – and overplayed it. Every so often Wenner the editor-in-chief comes into view, a man who is pretty good at his job, but then goes away in a cloud of money.

Sex and drugs, too.

As noted, there is plenty of sex and drugs. It was the ‘60s, after all; the ‘70s and ‘80s, too. LSD and pot give way to heroin and cocaine; free love gives way to slick sex and safe sex. Wenner and friends partake of it all. He manages to stay (reasonably) clear-headed while many around him fall apart.

Not the least of them is Wenner’s long-suffering wife, Jane, who was instrumental in molding the early Rolling Stone and smoothing Jann’s rough edges. Often ignored by her husband – who was busy either with the magazine or his famous friends – she plowed much of her energy into decorating, sex and drugs. The last wasn’t as easy for her to shake off as it was for her husband: at one point she’s described as so strung out that she won’t get out of bed for several days.

And that’s not counting the stories of other RS notables, especially famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose relationships with her subjects went well beyond taking pictures. At times chronicling these escapades is revealing. Leibovitz, for one, was discouraged from joining the Rolling Stones on a tour for fear that she’d barely emerge from the other end. She did the tour and, indeed, began a downward spiral that wasn’t turned around for a decade.

But more often it’s simply wearying. It’s a shame because Hagan also writes well when he has rich material, such as Wenner’s relationship with record labels and their moguls (such as Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun) and his willingness to go out on journalistic limbs when necessary (it was Rolling Stone that broke the full story on the Patricia Hearst kidnapping).

Hagan has some stylistic tics. He occasionally recapitulates some events as if you hadn’t just read them a chapter or two before. He also narrates too much, instead of letting some observers, such as Cameron Crowe, do the talking. (In Hagan’s defense, in some cases the observer didn’t give him an interview.)

He also gets some easy things wrong. “Saturday Night Live” comes live from Studio 8H, not 3H, and Dave Marsh – though he edited the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” – sure as hell didn’t write every entry.

But, for the most part, Hagan appears to have gotten it right. I do wish his portrait of Wenner were more well-rounded, but that probably says more about Wenner than it does about Hagan. As it is, “Sticky Fingers” says a lot about how money can’t buy ultimate happiness, but it sure as hell can buy so many other things.

Sex and drugs included.

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Review: ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire’ by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every generation has its observers who think things are bad and getting worse. Usually mass media has something to do with it: Neil Postman believed we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” while Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book about how we were drowning in “The Shallows” of the Internet.

Frankly, I think they’re right.

It’s not for nothing that one of my all-time favorite movies is “Network,” which has more prescient words (usually delivered by Peter Finch as Mad Prophet of the Airwaves Howard Beale) than an encyclopedia of predictions. I think the end is coming, and we’re bringing it on ourselves.

“Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” railed Beale in 1976 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Because, he explains, “less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”

That’s happened, of course. Television – particularly television news, because at least the storytelling part of TV got better since the days of “Kojak” – is in the hands of large corporations who need ratings and advertising dollars, and the best way to accomplish that is with outrage and emotion.

That’s especially true of cable news. CNN manages to undercut its worthy journalism with flashy graphics, overly dramatic anchors and those infuriating he said-she said panels that expand nothing besides the egos of its members. Most of Fox News, especially its nightly commentary shows (which too many people confuse with “news”), insists that the country is being destroyed by a cabal of whomever its audience believes is most threatening – people of color, environmentalists, coastal academics, Democrats. (Oh, if only W.E.B. Du Bois were still alive to frighten them today.)

And the Internet? Never has so much bad information been so readily available to so many who will believe so much. Did you know that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim socialist? Or David Rockefeller had seven heart transplants? If it’s online, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln said that. (Unless, of course, it’s “fake news,” which is defined as anything Donald Trump doesn’t like.)

Into this hopeless chasm plunges Kurt Andersen, Spy magazine co-founder, former Time magazine reporter and current “Studio 360” host. His “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” attempts to figure out how this great experiment of a country decided to forget about objective reality in favor of truthiness.

He generally blames the twin strands that have shaped America from its beginnings: religion and money.

The latter helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. And the former helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. We’ve never shaken off either, and these days the two are more powerful (and bound together) than ever.

After all, the Puritans weren’t exactly welcoming, even-tempered colonists – and they begat Anne Hutchinson, who Andersen observes tried to be more pure than the Puritans. A fanatical anti-intellectual, she defamed ministers and believed she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Andersen sees a direct connection between her and many Americans of today: “Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” he writes.

She was exiled, but then so were so many other religious groups that have woven their threads into the American fabric. Many of them are now accepted, because in America that’s what we believe in, even if we yell and scream about it.

You may think Andersen is just talking about the Religious Right, which has distrusted science and reason in favor of Bronze Age storytelling. And he does have harsh words for them. But he also rips into the left, including self-aggrandizing psychiatrists, New Age searchers and anti-establishment hippies. In fact, it’s that ‘60s concept of “find your own truth” that ends up being the sword brandished by the right wing in promulgating THEIR own truths.

So everybody ends up in the muck.

Andersen makes a number of good points in “Fantasyland,” but – ironically – he has too much to work with. After a first half setting things up, the second half of the book becomes a polemic, with Andersen plowing through megachurches, chemtrails, vaccinations, guns, the underbelly of the Internet and, of course, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian himself – the logical outgrowth of all this fantasy. It’s powerful and distressing stuff, but it’s almost too much. Better – if that’s the right word – was Charles P. Pierce’s more studied take in “Idiot America,” or Jon Ronson’s inquisitive “Them.”

Andersen’s writing style also leaves something to be desired. He has a tendency to write crescendoed, Tom Wolfe-ian sentences, which can curdle into Tom Wolfe-ian irritability when the book enters its polemic stages. (I like Tom Wolfe, but he generally knows when to exercise control.) Worse, I lost count of the amount of times Andersen would describe some historical personage without giving his or her name – ever. “The owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” “a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission,” “a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences” – these may be minor characters in Andersen’s history, but they have names, and it’s Journalism 101 to provide them, even if nobody knows who they are.

Still, I enjoyed much of “Fantasyland,” if “enjoyed” is the right word for listening to an increasingly frantic author ponder a country circling the drain. However, you may want to have a movie handy to counter the sinking feeling you have when you finish.

I recommend “Idiocracy.”

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Review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

1Q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to my Goodreads log, I started the 1,157 paperback-bound pages of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” on July 14. Last night, on November 27, I finally finished it.

In the four months, 13 days, 2 hours and 31 minutes it took me to read the book, a solar eclipse worked its way across the United States; Glen Campbell died; hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the United States and Caribbean; Hugh Hefner died; 58 people were killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas; Fats Domino died; 26 people were killed in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Prince Harry got engaged. Donald Trump was in his 27th year as president.

Also, I read a handful of other books, including Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” Andy Weir’s “Artemis” and George Orwell’s “1984.” It was Murakami who inspired me (and my book club) to pick up Orwell again. It was a nice respite while it lasted.

Well, a lot happens when you’re trudging through nonsense.

I will say, unlike so many other events of the past few months, “1Q84” didn’t leave death and destruction in its wake. However, it did keep me from reading at least four other books and a stack of New Yorkers.

The story does start out with a bang. In the year 1984, Aomame is a pretty young fitness instructor on the cusp of 30 who has a job to do: kill a man. On her way to her assignation, she gets out of a cab and, upon descending a freeway staircase, she enters another world – one almost exactly like this one except it has two moons.

(Oh, and the parallel Earth is apparently controlled by the Little People. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The other main character is a math teacher on the cusp of 30 named Tengo. He teaches to make ends meet; his real focus is writing. His publisher puts him together with a teenager named Fuka-Eri, who has written a raw manuscript called “Air Chrysalis.” Tengo’s job is to polish the book. He, too, crosses over into the world that Aomame calls “1Q84” (the Q is a pun in Japanese) and gets entangled with the cult that Fuka-Eri escaped. (“Air Chrysalis” also contains references to the Little People. This is significant.)

There’s an eerie connection between Aomame and Tengo. When the two were 10 years old, they were two lonely children at the same elementary school, and — for a brief moment — held hands. This is an experience neither has ever forgotten, and both are convinced that the other is The One. For the next 1,000 pages, they will attempt to reconnect, and then the world will end in an orgasm of explosive passion.

Well, no. You’re not really sure what’s going to happen when they meet, or if they’ll meet, or what their meeting will mean. But essentially, the attempt to reconnect is the plot driver. And as a driver, it’s the equivalent of an Uber guy taking you all over town before getting to your destination, which he finally approaches doing 10 miles per hour.

Fortunately, as you’d expect with Murakami, there are also lots of other plots, some unusual – a ghostly NHK fee collector who harasses people, a creepy private detective on the trail of Aomame and Tengo – and some straight out of a thriller.

Perhaps the best involves the cult, Sakigake, that Fuka-Eri has escaped and Aomame used to belong to. A sequence in which Aomame is tasked with killing the Sakigake leader becomes both a master class in suspense and a philosophical argument about responsibility. Another section, in which Tengo goes to a small city to care for his distant, dying father, is a moving meditation on regret.

And then there’s the private detective, Ushikawa. He’s a former lawyer with a misshapen head and an outwardly odious appearance, and early on, he’s no more than a Peter Lorre character, offering Tengo hush money and quietly threatening him. But in the last third of the novel (which was published as three books in Japan) he comes into his own, rationalizing his work as he comes closer to unraveling the Aomame-Tengo mystery. He’s fascinating, repulsive, and worthy of his own book.

But that’s the thing about “1Q84” – there are LOTS of books within its pages. I wish Murakami would have chosen one and streamlined the rest, or somehow made the whole thing more picaresque. Instead, it’s every bit as baggy as its 1,100-plus pages would have you fear. There are musings on food, blind alleys on the characters’ backgrounds (what DID happen to Tengo’s mother? Your guess is as good as mine), lots of lush copy on breasts (“Aomame thought again of Tamaki. She remembered her smooth, beautifully shaped breasts. So different from my own underdeveloped chest, she thought. But those beautiful breasts are now gone forever”), and virtually no explanation of the Little People.

The Little People can apparently get bigger once they crawl out of people’s mouths. And they say “ho-ho” a lot, like Disney’s Dwarves. They also build air chrysalises. I don’t know their thoughts on breasts.

There were many times during my months of reading I put on my old English major hat in attempts to figure out “1Q84’s” depths. Is Murakami making comparisons to Orwell’s “1984”? If so, it’s only in the sketchiest ways. What is the symbolism of the two moons? Seemingly nothing more than a way to separate Earth 1 from Earth 2. Why is Ushikawa’s tongue a mossy green, like the second moon? Maybe he didn’t brush his teeth enough. That’s my theory, anyway.

I had high hopes for “1Q84.” I loved “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which packed powerful tales of the 1930s Manchurian war into its broader plot. And there’s no question Murakami is a talented writer, capable of turning a phrase or sustaining the thrills of his off-kilter worlds. But the jumbled “1Q84” really could have used an editor.

It’s ironic. “1Q84” wants to be, among other things, a book about the power of storytelling, about losing yourself in another world. And, certainly, there are some books in which you reach the final page and then exhale, as if you’ve just come up for air. But upon finishing “1Q84,” I knew two things: Donald Trump was still in his 27th year as president, and I’d rather visit Orwell’s Room 101 than slog through “1Q84” again.

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Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Tom Petty, 1950-2017


(Update: Petty died Monday night.)

Tom Petty was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Most rock musicians are fans, of course. That’s why they become rock musicians. John Lennon idolized Elvis Presley; Kurt Cobain was fond of Black Flag. But Petty both wore his love of music on his sleeve — and got to be friends with his heroes.

He and the Heartbreakers got to back up Bob Dylan — and then he was in a band with Dylan (and George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne). Petty and the Heartbreakers later backed up Johnny Cash. And Petty, ever the fan, was genuinely pissed that pop and rock broadcast radio became boring and flat. That wasn’t what he signed up for. (He later created his own show, much like his friend Bob.)

Tom Petty is in grave condition. Earlier today, CBS News reported that he’d died after apparently suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, less than a week after concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.

But as of 4:35 p.m. ET TMZ said Petty is still “clinging to life,” though he’s off life support and not expected to live past today. I hope TMZ is both right and wrong. CBS, now citing the LAPD, has pulled back on its obituary, and others that ran with the news are now backtracking, too.

He’s always been a fighter.

I could never say I was a hardcore Petty fan, unlike friends who have all his albums and were working his songs into their setlists 30 years ago. (Fans beget fans, the wonderful way of the world.) But I loved much of his music. “I Need to Know” is still a model of a balls-to-the-wall single (the fact that it couldn’t get into the Top 40 is criminal); “Love Is a Long Road” pours out both desperation and a touch of hope; “Girl on LSD” is the kind of absurd toss-off that’s all too uncommon in our smug and cynical times.

He could be passionate. Years before “The Last DJ,” it was Tom Petty who fought his record company from raising the price of what became the LP “Hard Promises” to $9.98. Petty was going to retitle the record “$8.98,” then the standard list price for albums, if he didn’t get his way.

He got his way.

His hero-friends, half a generation older, seemed to treat him like a welcome, impish younger brother. I’ve long felt, fairly or not, that it was Petty who gave Dylan his sense of humor back after that sometimes dour mixed bag of early-’80s albums. I don’t know that Dylan would have worked in a reference to Joe Piscopo on “Infidels.”

I also think it was Petty who was the secret weapon in the Wilburys, though this was a group with a world-class voice and a ukulele collector.

Then there was Petty the quiet observer. The best example of this Petty is “To Find a Friend,” off 1994’s “Wildflowers.” It’s as muted and finely wrought as a Raymond Carver short story:

In the middle of his life
He left his wife
And ran off to be bad
Boy, it was sad
But he bought a new car
Found a new bar
And went under another name
Created a whole new game

(Tom, I’ll forgive you for using “quiet as a mouse.” You knew what you were doing.)

I remember reading an article about Petty learning the craft of songwriting. I’m probably screwing up the timeline (and the story, for that matter), but what I recall was a Petty at loose ends after Mudcrutch, his earlier band, had broken up. So he’d sit with famed producer Denny Cordell, who’d signed him, and listen to record after record. Cordell would explain structure and musical choices, and Petty lapped it up. (Having colleagues like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench didn’t hurt his education.) He wore those lessons on his sleeve long after he became a platinum-selling artist and created his own distinctive sound — passionate, a little funny, humane.

After all, he was a fan.

Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

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