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Media Monday - Newspapers, Brains, A Marriage Plot, Van Gogh, and Johnny Depp

Hello, and welcome to Media Monday. Last Monday was Columbus Day, which trumped Media Monday, but it's good to be back. We're in the thick of the serious-literature-and-awards period of the year, what with big celebrated authors being published every week, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature and, among others, the announcements of the Man Booker and National Book Award shortlists.

The New York Times

  • The Sunday Book Review opens with coverage of two books about the same famous media family. The family in question is the Medill family, and they are a mostly unsavory lot. For a (bitter) taste, here's what Joseph Epstein writes about two of the more business savvy Medills: "Socially ambitious, hard on their husbands, cold to their children, rivalrous between themselves, Kate and Nellie Medill took the smile out of Christmas and every other holiday." Nice. Who were these women and where can I learn more about them? Turns out they were once-famous newspaper founders and media titans. They were also mothers. If you're wondering which of these jobs they excelled at, you're in luck -- two books have come out in the past thirty days that outline the triumphs and failures of the Medill family, perhaps the greatest newspaper family ever to have lived in this country. Last month, it was Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson, and this month it's Magnificent Medills: America's Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor. They seem like a royal family that could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two.

  • Jeffrey Eugenides stopped by Amazon today for a reading. As I looked into the crowd, I could see that his audience was genuinely smitten. Another person who seems smitten by Eugenides, even if he doesn't fully want to admit it, is William Deresiewicz, who reviewed The Marriage Plot for the Times. He writes that the book "possesses the texture and pain of lived experience. Eugenides has always been best on young love." And further along in the review, Deresiewicz states, "the novel is also great on the patter and pretentiousness of college intellectuals ('The bookshelves held the usual Kafka, the obligatory Borges, the point-scoring Musil'); on the sweet banter of courtship; on the kind of doormat nice-boy role that Mitchell submits to playing in Madeleine’s life; and especially on what happens after you graduate, when the whole scaffolding of classes and the college social scene you’ve been training your personality around is suddenly taken away, and you have to grope for a new way to be in the world." The Marriage Plot was an October Best Book of the Month.

  • Another Best Book of the Month was The Cat's Table. The Times review says, "Reading Michael Ondaatje’s mesmerizing new novel, The Cat’s Table, is like being guided, just as surely and just as magically, through the author’s lustrous visions. As he did in his great 1992 novel, The English Patient, which won the Man Booker Prize and became an Academy Award-winning film, Ondaatje conjures images that pull strangers into the vivid rooms of his imagination, their detail illumined by his words."

  • I'm not sure if I'm imagining things, but it seems like the mind went out of fashion a few years ago only to be replaced by the brain. From Daniel H. Pink to Steven Pinker, from A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future to How the Mind Works, it was the mind, not the brain, that-- just a few years ago-- we were told to care about (again, this is only my recollection and not the result of a scientific poll... or any kind of poll, for that matter). Well, forget all that. Dean Buonomano, a neuroscientist at U.C.L.A., has written Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, which touches on "'associative architecture,' as the main causes of the brain’s bugs. 'The human brain stores factual knowledge about the world in a relational manner,' he explains. 'That is, an item is stored in relation to other items, and its meaning is derived from the items to which it is associated.'" In other words, dear reader, if I say "river," you say "bank," which quickly leads you to "money." It's almost inevitable because of the way your brain is wired. The review continues, "Buonomano engagingly uses associative memory to explain our susceptibility to advertising, our difficulty connecting events that are separated in time, and even our tendency toward supernatural beliefs."


    The review looks at another brain book, this one entitled, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn by Cathy N. Davidson. According to the reviewer, Christopher Chabris, Davidson's book "celebrates the brain as a lean, mean, adaptive multitasking machine that — with proper care and feeding — can do much more than our hidebound institutions demand of it." Interestingly, she appears to open the book with a discussion of the reviewer's own study.

    Lastly, if you want to know what Facebook has in common with cocaine, then pick up a copy of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. In it, Johns Hopkins neurobiologist David J. Linden discusses what are known collectively as the reward system, "elegantly drawing on sources ranging from personal experience to studies of brain activity to experiments with molecules and genes. Linden builds a powerful case that every kind of substance, activity or stimulus that motivates human choice does so because it acts on this particular network, whose neurons use the chemical dopamine to communicate with one another."

    While we're on the topic, I thought I'd throw in two similarly-themed books that I've recently read and enjoyed. They are Thinking Fast and Slow by a Nobel Prize-winning phychologist who sees the brain as being governed by two clashing decision-making processes-- basically, the intuitive mind and the fact-based but lazy mind. And the second book is Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by researcher Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney, who have written a knock-out book about our most coveted human virtue: self-control.


The Los Angeles Times

  • The LA Times has a short review of Luminous Airplanes, which says in part, "If the Internet boom of the 1990s inspired computer programmers and entrepreneurs bent on changing the world, its bust gave rise to hundreds of writers happy to chronicle it," and says in another part, "Much of Paul La Farge's novel... takes place in the slow days during which the boom was waning, and our unnamed protagonist is frittering away his days at a dying web company 'like the middle of Moby-Dick; no whale in sight, only occasional contact with another passing ship, and nothing to fill the time except digression.'"

  • There a good review of Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir by retired senior justice John Paul Stevens. The reviewer cites his decision not to pick fights with justices that he's disagreed with, taking the higher road instead, and makes the following closing argument: "Stevens' memoir is not a source of court gossip or even deep insight into its inner workings. Laced with observations on the court's architecture, traditions and even its seating arrangements, it is rather the collected ruminations of a man who has served his country in war and peace, across the decades. Stevens displeased some of his early conservative supporters and persevered for decades, a model of independence and good humor. His memoir is as gracious as its author and a reminder that Stevens is more than a longtime member of the nation's highest court. He is a national treasure."

  • Finally, there's an interview with Art Spiegelman, who has a new book out called Metamaus. At one point he says, "It's that old McLuhan thing yet again -- which I came across when I was first making comics, the Faustian deal made in the 1970s, which was: OK, if comics are going to survive into another century, they have to become art or die."


The Guardian

  • The Guardian has a long piece on Sir Terry Pratchett and Snuff, the 39th Discworld novel. What's Discworld, you ask? According to the article, "Discworld, created by Pratchett 28 years ago, is the fantasy world held up by four elephants balanced on the back of a giant turtle. It's a concept which started out as an affectionate lampoon of the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre, but it has, over the years, become an increasingly sophisticated swipe at contemporary society, pointing out the ridiculousness of everything from Hollywood to the postal service, newspapers, banks and football." If it still doesn't ring a bell, trust me that he has sold millions and millions of books in many, many languages.

  • Speaking of Terry Pratchett, the Guardian has an article discussing how stores in the UK will be opening at midnight to sell Haruki Murakami's latest, 1Q84. According to one bookseller: "It's very rare for us to open at midnight. Last year we did for the release of Terry Pratchett's new novel Unseen Academicals, when Terry did a Q&A and then came back at midnight in his nightshirt. Before that though, it was for Harry Potter," said Waterstone's spokesman Jon Howells. "Murakami fans are very excited. This is his first major novel in some years, and we're opening late in response to customer demand: they want to get their hands on it very quickly." This kind of excitement will undoubtedly spill over onto American soil, too.

  • Finally, there's an article on the Man Booker Prize (which will be announced Tuesday morning).


The New Yorker

  • Adam Gopnik, who has a new book coming out next month, has a piece in the New Yorker about the 50th Anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth. It's really a great read, and both creators of the book take center stage. Nice work.

    Somehow, Mr. Gopnik found time for this Van Gogh piece as well.




  • And speaking of Van Gogh, anyone who watched "60 Minutes" this Sunday must have seen this captivating story questioning whether Vincent Van Gogh actually committed suicide. Well, the story was also covered in ArtsBeat, which introduces Van Gogh: The Life, the book on which the 60 Minutes episode was based.



  • BookBeast has a review of the next book by the author of A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar. The book is called Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, and it cites Victorian England as the beginning of modern day economics, describing the theories of the great economists who followed from that point in time and showing how their ideas had the power both to cast the masses into wretched circumstances and to pull them out.


The Wall Street Journal


National Public Radio

  • Colson Whitehead, one of our most entertaining and talented young(ish) writers, has written a zombie novel called Zone One. In this interview, he tells NPR, "It's about a guy just trying to make it to the next day without being killed — so it's about New Yorkers."



New York Magazine


The Millions

  • Since we can't get enough of Jeffrey Eugenides today, here's a little more about The Marriage Plot.


Lapham's Quarterly

  • Lapham's Quarterly has a nice short piece on Tomas Tranströmer that begins: "The phone rang in the Stockholm apartment of Tomas and Monica Tranströmer, announcing that after eighteen consecutive years of being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 80-year-old poet had won. In the Swedish Academy’s press room, as soon as Tranströmer’s name was uttered—in fact, as soon as the first “T” sounded—the room erupted in joyous screams and applause. There is a difference between writers and poets who are respected, and those who are deeply loved."






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I'm really excited for "The Marriage Plot". I'm going to be reviewing it as soon as I finish reading it here:

Welcome back. You have been missed!!

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