Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Harper Collins finished 2003 very strong. As the year ended, H.C. blitzed the market with an array of fine fiction and non-fiction titles that out-distanced its competition, in turn feeding the appetites of readers from around the world. The best include:
AUTUMN OF THE MOGULS: My Misadventures with the Titans, Poseurs and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media. By Michael Wolff. Harper Collins. Michael Wolff , who writes a weekly column for New York Magazine (“This Media Life”) is a journalist of great gusto and profound insight who holds nothing back. In Moguls, he gives us an insider’s break down of just what has gone wrong with the media, illuminating how the snakes took hold of the empire.
Simply, Moguls tells the story of the behind-the-scenes deal making that has rendered the media of this new America meaningless. Today, our biggest papers and magazines are not so much objective news gatherers dedicated to the dissemination of information, but instead, corporate traders looking to control the bank vaults; consequently, they dictate the things we’re allowed to see and hear. In one especially piercing passage on the rise of Martha Stewart, Wolff writes:
“Here is the first postmodern media empire. The Martha business is the ultimate guerrilla-marketing strategy: using the media to promote your media […] everything you did promoted everything else you did – you had to come up with an approach that allowed you to get paid for promoting yourself…”
What’s best about Wolff’s book and the way it’s written is that it’s about telling the truth. In one fine swipe of his pen, Wolff reminds journalists everywhere that it’s not about who you piss off, but about the reader’s right to know. This is why we do what we do — we have an obligation to educate communities and individuals so that they can protect themselves and their personal liberties.
However, the ones who own newspapers and magazines and television stations aren’t interested in such noble endeavors. No sir. They want power and wealth and control of the market share. In reality, they’re human predators capitalizing on the public’s “need to know,” manipulating the business side of journalism until nothing but the skeleton of a story remains. You see, they always leave a skeleton — scant meat on the bone — because they need something to sell.
Market share. Wall Street power. Advertising dollars. The monopolization of democracy. Michael Wolff had the guts to write a book about what’s really happening with the folks that sell us the news. Turn everything else off and focus your attention here.
THE WAY THE CROW FLIES. By Ann-Marie MacDonald. Harper Collins. This novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald is set in a postwar era, and it should have immediate meaning for all Americans given the reality of these strange, dark, war-torn times. More than anything, Crow is meant to show us how the goings-on of the government and the world at-large affect us personally. By the end of this book, I was left with many questions. For me, Crow transcended plot and characterization and made me ask questions — about who I am and how I got here. How much of the individual is formed by the occurrences of the world? How does the state of the government impact the lives people lead and the lies they tell? As a country, we are moving into uncharted territory; as a collective group, we thirst for something real to hang onto. In times of trouble and turmoil, literature has always provided a refuge and a hiding place, while truly great books hold the power to teach us about the roads we are traversing. The Way The Crow Flies is a fine starting point.
STORIES OF RICHARD BAUSCH. Richard Bausch. Harper Collins. Richard Bausch is probably the best short story writer in the country today — a man who has taken the medium and glazed it with his own special voice. This volume collects 42 of Bausch’s best pieces (including seven brand new stories), showing the full range of his work. Both poignant and humorous, Bausch’s work will remind you of the early Hemingway: the man can paint a thousand faces with a single line of prose.
AGNES’S FINAL AFTERNOON: An Essay On The Work Of Milan Kundera. Francois Ricard. Harper Collins. Agnès’s Final Afternoon is a major book illuminating the work of Milan Kundera. In his essay, Ricard is able to get to the core of Kundera’s fictive voice, exploring the literary form of the novel in relation to Kundera’s filmic view of the world. And that’s the true power behind this work – the essay plays like a film, it’s actually a documentary about how fiction can become reality by virtue of the way a writer chains words together and moves them across the printed page. Make no mistake – Kundera is very much a film-maker whose movies are not made of celluloid but of paper and ink twisting into the bloody living fiber of transparent imagination. In Final Afternoon, Ricard brings us to the river at the edge of Kundera’s mirror. Suddenly, we are able to peer inside the invisible mind where so many stories live in full and beautiful bloom.
HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT: The Pursuit of Excellence In The Arts and Sciences. Charles Murray. Harper Collins. Human Accomplishment is, quite simply, a volume about history as voluminous as time itself. In the end, this work builds a capsule with all that’s good about the human hands of creation: With precision and certainty, Murray dissects our best feats in the fields of art and science, illuminating the faces responsible for each of them.
Accomplishment covers the age of Homer to the present, reviewing the best in music, art and the sciences, surveying the work of the 4,000 greatest minds the world has given birth to. Human Accomplishment is absolutely essential for both the closet historian and the serious student of world events: As page one turns through the changing shape of this earthly life, we begin a most glorious and compelling journey.
FROM EMERIL’S KITCHEN. Emeril Lagasse. William Morrow Publishers. Emeril Lagasse is one hot chef. His show on the Food Channel (“Emeril Live”) is a fun and energetic cooking class that encourages audience involvement every step of the way. Above all else, Emeril’s recipes are inventive and simple, while his delivery serves as a lesson on how not to intimidate the kitchen novice. Lagasse, a resident of Louisiana, opened up his first restaurant a decade ago in New Orleans; he now owns other eateries in Georgia, Las Vegas and Florida as well. Lagasse’s popularity has risen in the last few years, probably because we’re seeing more of him: aside from the Food Channel program, he also serves as a food correspondent for “Good Morning America.”
From Emeril’s Kitchen is a collection of the chef’s recipes that are used in his restaurants, transferring his customary high energy from the TV screen to the printed page. Lagasse is the author of seven other cooking books, but what’s special about this one is its breadth: a wide array of recipes are presented in a clear and concise manner — with a quick “1-2-3” list of instructions bringing you step-by-step through the cooking process. The pasta, rice and risotto section is especially well done: a broad sampling of recipes showcase everything from shrimp ragout with noodles to Emeril’s vegetable and egg fried rice. Another highlight is the comprehensive soups chapter that presents fine gumbo and chowder recipes. From Emeril’s is a well designed and thorough cookbook (the way the pages are split with the ingredients on one side and the recipe on the other is a great touch, as is the fact that its author has chosen to forgo flash for substance and clarity). Endearing in both its simplicity and practicality, From Emeril’s is a cook book that you are likely use time and again to enrich your life in the kitchen.
101 MOST POWERFUL PROMISES IN THE BIBLE. Steve and Lois Rabey and Marcia Ford. Warner Books. With another Christmas upon us, many will find it to be a good time to re-explore issues of faith and re-acquaint one’s self with the inner workings of the spirit. 101 stitches together in one volume some of God’s “promises” to his flock, giving those who may be experiencing a collapse of faith the opportunity to reclaim their relationship with Christ:
“…For just as the sufferings of Christ flow into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows…”
(From page 99)
The Rabeys and Ms. Ford present the material in short chapters, presenting one of God’s promises per chapter, and then analyzing it in terms that are relevant to life in the 21st century:
“…Keep me grounded on earth but looking forward to the hope of heaven.”
(From page 39)
This serves as the second installment in the Warner series that began with the 101 Most Powerful Prayers In The Bible in July 2003; due in February the 101 Most Powerful Proverbs in The Bible. Good gift choice for those grappling with questions of faith. Also good teaching tool for the young teen exploring Christianity.
GOD’S BESTSELLER: William Tyndale, Thomas More, And The Writing Of the English Bible. Brian Moynahan. St. Martin’s Press. In the 16th century, William Tyndale wrote and published the first English translation of the bible, believing that his English countrymen deserved to be able to read the word of God in their own language. Even though Tyndale was accused of being a heretic, he would not be deterred from his beliefs. After Tyndale drafted his translation of the bible (an act directly contrary to laws that prohibited any independent interpretation of the scripture), he was hunted down by Sir Thomas More and eventually burned at the stake:
“As his obsession with Tyndale grew, More reviewed the body of evangelical books and had no hesitation in placing ‘fyrst Tyndales new testament father of them all by reason of his falase translatyng’. He saw a symphony of heresy in which Tyndale was ‘the basse and the tenour whereupoon [others] wold singe…’”
(From page 104)
William Tyndale’s life stands an example of how one’s personal religious beliefs can lead to being ostracized — and even killed. Further, Tyndale’s life is an example of the risks we take when we step outside the bounds of the status quo to express a different point of view. Look at the Middle East — look at what is happening in Iraq and in neighboring countries: men are killed and hunted down every day for daring to have an individualized way of looking at themselves in relation to society. William Tyndale’s story (which isn’t that widely remembered today) serves to remind us of the dangers in going against ‘church’ or ‘state.’
Brian Moynahan should be commended for his sound, sharp writing and for his analysis of this finger tip of history: In the end, Moynahan has written a book that is meant to leave its reader applying the lessons of William Tyndale’s final days to this 21st century version of the world.
THE QUEST FOR THE TRUE CROSS. Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’ Ancona. Palgrave. Quest is an ambitious book, for it sets out to answer the question of what happened to the cross after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Many historians subscribe to the thought that all “holy relics” in existence are nothing more than fakes feeding the insatiable human need for illusion. However, Thiede and d’Ancona come to contradcit this position in order to analyze a fragment of wood that is said to be from the headboard of the cross on which Christ died:
“In this book we have tried to extend this approach to the first symbols and sacred artefacts of the early Christian communities; to show the antiquity and deep signifigance of those symbols, and the care with which holy objects would have been safegaurded; and to demonstrate the absolute importance in early Christianity of such objects, of sacred locations and of their preservation. Naturally, legends, rumours and pure falsehoods accrued to their memory. But not everything that was said and written about holy relics and places was false.”
(From page 154)
Obviously, it’s a difficult proposition to attempt to alter anyone’s personal belief system (and even more difficult to dissect the reasons as to why the icicles of these ideas formed in the first place). On this level, Quest is a bold and impressive book, for its authors choose to go against conventional thinking and lead us down a path where one has to truly believe in order to arrive at an answer; in actuality, we are travelling down a similar path that William Tyndale traversed centuries before. Read on: Thiede and d’Ancona encourage each reader to risk the walls of an open mind. In turn, you might be rewarded with the rediscovery of God along the way.
SEX AND HEAVEN (Catholics In Bed and Prayer). John Portmann. Palgrave. The state of the Catholic Church is in disarray these days – with endless molestation scandals rocking the faith of its followers . Here, John Portmann has written an in depth book that looks at the way the Roman Catholic Church views matters sexual in nature — analyzing just how realistic the Church’s moral expectations really are:
“Is sex just another issue, or is it the burning question of today? Certainly, Christianity has faced many challenges over the course of two thousand years (for example, Pelagianism, iconoclasm, and Islam). The Vatican has wrestled with various issues and lost (for example, the morality of slavery and the position of the earth in our galaxy). Are sexuality and gender simply the most recent in a long line of scrapes, then? Or can they be accurately portrayed as more potent than preceding crises? In increasingly secular times, it seems the one issue really capable of rallying the troops is sex. That in itself is perhaps a sufficient answer.”
(From page 52)
As many a psychologist has observed, sex is the one thing that shreds the human mind and renders it helpless. Many —I’d venture to say most — people are so confused about their sexuality and how they relate to others that they wander through life completely dysfunctional. But why? It all comes down to the concept of guilt. We are taught in church that you can’t get to heaven with a sinful, immoral, dirty mind. Further, the church teaches that if sex occurs outside the limits set by marriage it defiles both body and mind.
So, as we learn these things from our priests and from our parents the natural impulse for sexual release suddenly is blackened with guilt — tarnished gone dark and hidden away under cold murky blankets in secret dreams. Just like that, we lose sight of ourselves and our faces and how to express ourselves. However, it’s not just the people going to church who are swimming in confusion: If the accusations of child abuse that have surfaced against hundreds of priests prove to be true, then it will quite forcefully demonstrate that the clergy is also fighting through questions of sexual identity/expression.
Sex and Heaven is a deep book; even though it is written in a very academic and distant way, it nonetheless confronts some very caustic issues and compels its readers to look at the church with practical, yet human, eyes. I don’t have any answers. But I think after reading Portmann’s writings that I am better able to see just what questions need to be asked.
THE CONTINUUM HISTORY OF APOCALYPTICISM. Edited by Bernard McGinn, John J. Collins and Stephen J. Stein. Continuum. This fine selection just released by Continuum condenses the 1,500 page Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism published in 1998. This volume does a fine job of tracing the origins of Apocalypticism from the ancient world through modern times. “Apocalypticism,” a term which refers to a time when the world will end and God will judge his children, is the foundational idea behind Christianity (as well as Judaism and the Islamic faiths). Further, it is the true driving force behind the element of conscience and man’s understanding of the concepts of good and evil:
“Like the proclamations of John the Baptist, Cyprian’s letters to Bishop Lucius of Rome in 252 say that the sufferings of church leaders all over the empire simply make it clear that Christ is coming soon to confirm his faithful ones in joy. All these passages reveal how, in Cyprian’s hands, the imagery of the apocalyptic tradition – taken very much at face value – has become a powerful means of pastoral encouragement as well as a key to finding deeper meaning in the troubles of his time.”
(Brian E. Daley; pages 229 & 230)
Given recent world events (the terrorist bombings in New York City and Washington DC in September 2001, the Iraq War in 2003), we can see how the belief that life is about to end propels human behavior. Those responsible for crashing the planes into the World Trade Center towers saluted God as they embarked on a journey that culminated in acts of savagery and barbarism. It may be hard to fathom, but these terrorists didn’t think that they were dying, but instead believed they were moving into a state of heavenly bliss, far beyond the mouth of the apocalypse.
Confused and dumbfounded on why things are happening? Well, it all comes down to how people interpret faith and their personal relationships with God, about how they fit into the holy mysteries of existence. Accordingly, theContinuum History sets out to explain the genesis of these ideas. In nursing this project to completion, the editors have done a magnificent job in synthesizing a vast amount of material and editing very complex essays, tying the book together in a seamless and, ultimately, a profound way. However, many will find that the tone of the writing is overly scholarly — a style that is likely not to appeal to the general reader. Instead, this is a book for students of religion who are curious to understand the reasons why Man has developed in the manner in which he has.
Would be an appropriate text at the University level in Theology or Religions of The World courses. Invaluable reference text for all libraries in the Religion and Spirituality sections.
TOM’S BIG DINNERS. Tom Douglas. With Ed Levine, Shelly Lance and Jackie Cross. William Morrow.Tom Douglas is one of the hottest chefs in the country — a refreshingly “down-home” cook whose theory of the kitchen revolves around making big meals for the family. Look close: so much of what we see today from American chefs is centered around complicated “statement” recipes that high-light the preparer more than the food. Well, Douglas’ work changes this trend, as he takes his craft from the restaurant scene of Seattle to the rest of the country. However, what’s truly valuable about these concepts and recipes is that they are not limited to the Pacific Northwest region, but instead, are useful to any home cook looking for some new things to try. Tom’s Big Dinners includes a wonderful recipe for pit-roasted spareribs — a simple and robust creation that retools the standard Texas style of BBQ and adds a Southwest glaze of smoke to the meat – accentuating the flavor while making it much less heavy. The ham-hock stock, brandied Bing cherries and chocolate crepes are also standouts: inventive and original, yet not difficult to prepare. Home cooks will also appreciate the way this book is presented — easy to follow recipes and crisp writing teach us in an effortless and efficient way (the true and ultimate test of every worthwhile cook book). If you are the type of person who only wants one or two cooking “coaches” in the house to be used time and again, then try Tom’s Big Dinners: For this is a manual about feeding your family and not about impressing the neighbors.
LEECHCRAFT: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Stephen Pollington. Anglo-Saxon Books.This is the most comprehensive study of the healing arts in the Anglo-Saxon world since Henry S. Wellcome’s “Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft” (published in 1912 and long since out-of-print). Pollington’s book covers everything from healing through prayer and witchcraft to the use of plants as medicine — an interesting and absolutely thorough exploration of the way cultures have evolved, using a classic reportage style to show how communities once dealt with the suffering of the sick. In these ancient worlds, much of daily life was predicated upon prayer, and people beckoned God forth though meditation and words, requesting that He heal them through the wondrous elements of nature:
“Blessing of the plants. All-powerful , eternal god who from the world’s beginnings set up and made all things, both trees of their type, and plants with their seeds, the same ones as you have hallowed, consecrating them with your blessing…”
(Page 247, From The Lacnunga Manuscript)
What’s best about Pollington’s book is the effortless and clear way that it is written and edited: Pollington is a master lecturer who knows how to present complex and layered material in a concise and thorough manner, always careful to place data in its proper historical context. Further, Leechcraft’s format includes a detailed index which allows the reader to search for specific information without needlessly wasting time. Complimented by Lindsay Kerr’s first-rate illustrations. Highly recommended as a teaching text at the college level for all history and anthropology courses that touch on the subject matter of early English healing.