A media A-list’s favorite books of 2016
Jake Tapper, the CNN reporter-show host, needed far less time than even a hyperactive wire service rewrite guy to answer a question about his favorite book this year:
“‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon.”
Bam, that didn’t take long. But it’s why amid a Trump- and-terrorism-centric moment, I asked busy and smart journalists to go high when so many others in our political midst go low (should I copyright that line?).
Yes, yes, I’m long suspicions about the facile journalistic construct of end-of-year-lists. So I’m forced to ape Sen. John McCain after a 1999 Capitol Hill press conference where he joined moralizing senators, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett and the former Donna Rice (of Gary Hart fame) in announcing a campaign to bring those immoral folks in Hollywood to heel by pushing for clean and family friendly entertainment.
I asked Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut how he could wax so righteous when he always appeared on Don Imus’ then-hot, at times X-rated radio show. His lame response was that Imus never got X-rated when he was on the show. My friend, the late columnist Lars Erik-Nelson of The New York Daily News, then buttonholed McCain and asked the same — with McCain quickly proving why his most ardent constituents are the press.
“It certainly smacks of hypocrisy,” said McCain. (Chicago Tribune) With that, here are some other real smart people with their books of the year:
—Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief, The Huffington Post: “‘The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War’ by Stephen Kinzer. A masterpiece, and learning the nitty-gritty of the sordid CIA and State Department history of the ’50s and ’60s will make you pause before throwing too much of a temper tantrum when another nation intervenes in our electoral process.”
—Jill Lawrence, commentary editor, USA Today: “I read mostly fiction. This year — as is often the case — the most memorable was the latest Armand Gamache novel by former journalist Louise Penny, “A Great Reckoning.” Her literary mysteries are a grand, disturbing, sometimes laugh-out-loud feast of art, evil, psychology, religion, politics, crime and policing (and also bistro food). As a gift, I would recommend ‘Still Life,’ the first in the series, because each book builds on the one before. Reading them in order is a treat.”
—David Shribman, editor in chief, Pittsburg Post-Gazette: “Hugh MacLennan, ‘The Watch that Ends the Night’ (McGill-Queens University Press). “This is a long-forgotten 1959 Canadian novel that may be the best novel I’ve read in decades.”
“The author is known for his classic ‘The Two Solitudes’ but this is perhaps even better, an examination of friendship, loyalty and revolution in which the most memorable character is not a human but the city of Montreal.”
—Melanie Sill, vice president of content, Southern California Public Radio: “‘Bobby Kennedy,’ by Larry Tye. Deeply researched, beautifully written, Tye’s book describes Kennedy’s evolution as a politician and a human being. I learned much about history I thought I knew, and reading it in this political year offered great perspective in considering bare-knuckle politics and the complexity of social change.”
—Hamilton Nolan, senior writer, Gizmodo Media Group: “‘The End of Alchemy’ by Mervyn King is a great reminder that much of what we think is ‘politics’ is actually a byproduct of decisions by central bankers that almost nobody understands. This would be a bad gift.”
—Kevin Merida, editor, The Undefeated: “Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, ‘The Light of the World.’ If you’ve lost a loved one or have just loved deeply, this book will inspire you. It’s honest and beautiful.”
—Frank Rich, essayist-editor-at-large, New York magazine: “‘A Handful of Dust’ by Evelyn Waugh, because it is a great novel about the inexorable passing of an age and a civilization, and surely this is a time to read (or re-read) wise fiction that gives us a wider view of the world than what is right in front of us.”
—Kate Bennett, White House correspondent and Washington editor of Independent Journal Review, exploited my friendship with her dad to get in two suggestions:
“This year, I was an escapist — because, well, 2016. I adored ‘I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, With a Twist,’ the fabulous and fascinating memoir by longtime Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper, Betty Halbreich, who’s now in her 80s. Not only does Betty dish on clients, celebrities, and her own very complex and interesting life, she’s able to sum up why it is that what we wear is sometimes the key to who we are. Deep, guys.”
“I love the beauty that is the world of Garance Doré, the fashion blogger-illustrator turned style-arbiter who perfectly gets the desire every woman secretly has to look, act, and dress like a Parisian, traipsing through life in cafés, donning a perfectly tied Hermes scarf around her neck, hot, French boyfriend in tow. Here’s how: read ‘Love Style Life.’ Also, there’s an interview the Vogue’s Emmanuelle Alt, who is my fashion everything.”
—Owen Youngman, professor at Medill, Northwestern University: “‘Utopia is Creepy: And Other Provocations’ by Nicholas Carr. In this selection of 79 posts from a decade of his blog ‘Rough Type,’ Carr serves up enough antidotes to the conventional wisdom about technology and culture to get any journalist to make a list of his or her assumptions; check it twice; and then avoid the easy assumption that ‘easier’ means ‘better.’ As he writes in the introduction, ‘What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal…We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.’ And you should, of course, stay current with his provocations at roughtype.com.'”
—Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of libertarian Reason.com and Reason TV, gets cut some slack, too, as he deals with the question, “Where the hell did Donald Trump come from and what are essential survival strategies for the new year and the three ones after that?”
“Penn Jillette’s ‘Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales’ is a lean, mean diet memoir by the well-known magician that is leavened with tales of his two tours on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’ You’ll not only learn how to go cold turkey from what Jillette calls the ‘Standard American Diet’ (or SAD!) but get a strong sense of what makes the Donald tick.”
“The other is a sobering book about the long-range hangover from the ‘noble experiment’ in banning booze during the 1920s. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr’s ‘The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State’ is a tour de force of deep, serious research and analysis that’s also a real page-turner. Most important to the current moment, she documents how federal powers don’t ever really disappear. Instead, like parasites they find a new host to do their bidding after their original purpose is served.”
—Alex Witt, reporter-host, MSNBC: “I went to see the Broadway hit, ‘Hamilton’ and was then inspired to read Ron Chernow’s book ‘Hamilton.’ While reading the biography, I was often listening to the Hamilton’ cast singing songs from the show. Need I explain further why it was my favorite book of 2016?! However, I enjoyed Chernow’s writing so much, I’m nearly finished with his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, ‘Washington: A Life’ and taking from both books the wisdom and political sophistication of our Founding Fathers.”
Jeff Zeleny, reporter, CNN: “In a noisy year of politics, a great escape was reading this terrific book: ‘The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-town Coach Who Shaped Big-League Dreams.’ The cover of the book suggests it’s about baseball, but it’s actually a story of America, written from the Iowa town of Clarinda. Author Michael Tackett (of The New York Times) brings this all to life in a tale you will look forward to reading.
—Elizabeth Taylor, co-editor of The National Book Review: “If not too craven, ‘Imbeciles’ by Adam Cohen, my co-author on ‘American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Making of Chicago — who died 40 years ago yesterday. (Dec. 20, 1976.)”
“No, ‘Imbeciles’ is not about anyone involved in politics now. The full title is ‘Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,’ which is about the Supreme Court’s decision to champion eugenic sterilization in 1927 with the Buck v. Bell decision. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
OK, if that smacks of cronyism, Taylor offers this, instead: “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond. It’s about “eight families in Milwaukee, and with rigor and empathy shows that eviction isn’t just a one time occurrence — it’s a dynamic in which the poor and powerless suffer, and an industry is enriched through the process.”
James Warren, chief media writer, Poynter (that would be me): “The Game,” written in 1983 by cerebral and legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, remains the best book on ice hockey and an athlete’s life on the road.
Twitter exodus continues
“Twitter Inc.’s chief technology officer is leaving, another blow to the social-media company’s top ranks just weeks after its chief operating officer resigned.” (Bloomberg)
The morning babble
The manhunt for the Berlin truck killer was at the top of agenda for all the morning cable news shows. CNN security pundits Michael Weiss and Paul Cruickshank clearly disagreed on the level of sophistication embodied by the perpetrator, with the former finding a great deal more than the later. A related, subsequent debate on U.S. failures in Syria between co-host Chris Cuomo and Hindustan Times editor Bobby Ghosh was smart, with Cuomo ultimately pointing a finger at Congress, Ghosh at Obama.
Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hung his analysis of the Berlin tragedy on the European Union’s “disastrous border policies” and found support in a Wall Street Journal editorial, too, that argues, “Europe continues to reap the bitter fruit of America’s unwillingness to lead a full-blown war against Islamic state in its Syrian and Iraqi heartland, and of Europe’s inability to provide its own leadership in the Obama administration’s vacuum.”
No surprise, “Fox & Friends” blamed Obama passivity in Syria and Iraq for expansion of ISIS and letting them take root elsewhere, all the while helping to precipitate the refugee crisis. Morgan Ortagus, a Fox pundit, bemoaned, “You can’t go into Nice and the South of France in the summer and have a glass of wine without being worried about somebody driving a car and blowing up the place. The same thing in Germany.” For her and the Trump cheerleaders there it’s all the fault of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
A pain in the neck
The Hollywood Reporter set out to do interviews with 10 entertainers in their 90s. “Nine of the interviews went great. One was a train wreck.”
Reporter Andy Lewis was confronted by nearly eight minutes of one-word, mostly dismissive answers, from comedian Jerry Lewis. Does working help you stay healthy? “No.” Do you think it hurts? “No.” And and on.
Has Vegas changed since he first got in the game in 1947? “It’s exactly the same.” Are his fans different? “No, still the same.” How have you maintained your audience? “You tell ’em you’re playing there and they show up.”
Does he have any advice for young 80-year-olds about staying active in their 90s? “Get a day job.” Favorite story about working with Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin? “No.” And on and on.
End of the line for a tortuous legal case
It’s finally over. Amazing.
The Obama administration has now lost the final skirmish in an attempt to keep grand jury records sealed in a 1942 national security leaks prosecution. The Supreme Court denied cert, meaning it won’t hear an appeal of a Chicago federal court ruling that spurned the Justice Department’s attempt to keep secret the testimony from a 74-year-old prosecution of The Chicago Tribune for revealing that the U.S. had cracked Japanese codes.
Historian Elliot Carlson sought the grand jury transcripts resulting from investigation of Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston’s June 7, 1942 story that accompanied the front-page news of the stunning post-Pearl Harbor victory of the U.S. at the Battle of Midway. The victory was crucial to the ultimate Allied victory. (Poynter)
Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says that the paper records will now finally be available at the National Archives offices in College Park, Maryland but not online.
A very nervy photographer
Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici was right there when a terrorist murdered the Russian ambassador to Turkey. (The Guardian)
“I was, of course, fearful and knew of the danger if the gunman turned toward me. But I advanced a little and photographed the man as he hectored his desperate, captive audience.”
“This is what I was thinking: ‘I’m here. Even if I get hit and injured, or killed, I’m a journalist. I have to do my work. I could run away without making any photos … But I wouldn’t have a proper answer if people later ask me: ‘Why didn’t you take pictures?’”
“I even thought about friends and colleagues who have died while taking photographs in conflict zones over the years.”
A new candor about death
STAT, the new site on the health sciences run by former New York Times stalwart Rick Berke, has started running a gallery of 52 obituaries from around the United States that constitute the face of a drug scourge. They all died of opioid overdoses.
“What’s striking,” says Berke, “is that the cause of death is mentioned in all these obits from local papers.” STAT got the OK to run the obits from Legacy.com. It’s pretty gripping. (STAT)
If you watched HBO’s “Vice News Tonight” you learned that the country with the highest per-capita number of Middle East migrants is Sweden (population 9.5 million). But tensions are growing due to citizen chagrin over the government’s generosity. Now it plans to deport 180,000, many back to Afghanistan.
The Afghans are miffed because the Syrians get preferential treatment in the asylum process. The theory is that anybody fleeing Syria is in immediate danger. But no shortage of Afghans think that a forced return home for them is a death warrant. It was a good piece. (Vice)
Ed Schultz and “Putie”
Did you know that Schultz, the former left-wing MSNBC and syndicated radio host now is a news anchor for RT America, “the domestic network of what was once known as Russia Today, a globe-spanning multimedia organization funded by the Russian government”? “Schultz, in other words, went to work for ‘Putie.'” (The Washington Post)
Eat your heart out
Gardiner Harris of The New York Times had presidential pool duty in Hawaii yesterday. His dispatches included:
“After nearly three hours, the Obamas departed Bellows beach. The weather held throughout the visit, with plenty of sunshine and little wind. Bellows could hardly be more ideal, with a wide strip of mature pines edging up to a white sand beach. The water offers four distinct shades of aquamarine going out to what appears to be a reef, where white breakers form a boundary with a sapphire blue Pacific beyond. The more distant horizon offers sharp trapezoidal islands of tropical vegetation.”
“In short, crazy beautiful.”
As I write Wednesday morning in Obama’s beloved Chicago, it cloudy and a balmy 23-degrees. But I am not bitter or jealous. No. Ugh, enough of the faux dignity and decorum. Down with Gardiner Harris.