Hot Reads: The News from Spain, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Familiar, Do the Movies Have a Future?, All Gone

The weather is crisp and the reads are hot.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore put a smile on my face, All Gone made me thank my lucky stars, Familiar tripped me out, The News From Spain tugged at my heart and Do the Movies Have a Future? got me thinking about just how strange and tenuous cultural criticism can be in the first place.  Check out this week’s reviews for The Daily Beast.  Bonus feature: I recommended A Free Man for Newsweek’s round-up of essential new books on India.

Hot Reads: This is How You Lose Her, Surviving Survival, Seven Houses in France, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Hidden America

Reviews, reviews, reviews! This week’s round-up includes some real masters of fiction — Junot Diaz, Shani Boianjiu and the Basque writer Bernard Atxaga — and some inquisitive, big-hearted non-fiction craftsmen too.   The reviews are up on the Newsweek/Daily Beast site.

Recently on The Takeaway

A round-up of some of the segments I’ve particularly enjoyed working on for The Takeaway recently:

Listeners Respond: Things You Would Have Said  A funny thing happens when you call up strangers and tell them you’re a public radio producer: They tell you things, personal things. After doing a short interview with Jackie Hooper, the author of The Things You Would Have Said, we were flooded with listener comments about things they wished they’d said to people in their past.  I had the task of calling up a handful of listeners for longer phone interviews. We finally aired the stories of three listeners.

An Argument Against Happiness  Last month the United Nations took up the topic of moving beyond conventional economic measures in a session called “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” As a follow-up to our segment on this move, we invited Wake Forest University English Professor Eric Wilson, author of Against Happiness, onto the program.  He argued the virtues of melancholy. “In America there is a sense that we can have all up with no down and all light with no dark — that we can be happy all the time,” he said.  “I’m in favor of honestly facing the world as it is and trying to make the best of it.”

March Heat Breaks Records Across the Country According to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 15,000 weather records were set in the United States this March.  John Harold, a farmer in Olathe, Colorado described the dilemmas the unseasonably warm weather had presented on his farm.  Andrew Revkin of The New York Times’ “Dot Earth” blog summed things up this way: “Expect more of the same as the climate warms.”

Walmart’s Mexican Bribery Scandal Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect joined the program from his home in Mexico City to provide some perspective on reports of widespread bribery in Walmart’s Mexican operations.  When Fishman was working on his book years before, he’d been struck by how rigidly ethical the company’s practices were in the US. “What’s interesting is instead of Walmart changing the culture of Mexico, Mexico changed the culture of Walmart,” Fishman said.

Baby Boomers Squeeze Savings to Support Parents and Children  According to a new survey from Ameriprise Financial, more than half of baby boomers help their parents pay for groceries, medical expenses, or utilities. What’s more, a stunning 93% provide their adult children with financial support too. “Boomers’ attitudes about spending and saving have changed dramatically,” Suzanna de Baca of Ameriprise Financial explained. Boomer Mark Niedt in Denver described his own predicament. “While I’d love to be socking away some money for my own retirement, I’m really forced to derail that and give some assistance when I can,” he said.

Men — You Talk Too Much  Yale organizational behavior professor Tori Brescoll shared her fascinating research about just how much powerful men and women talk in the workplace. “Give men power and they’ll talk a lot — but that wasn’t really the case for women,” Brescoll found.  What’s more, women who were particularly outspoken paid a price: They were perceived as incompetent and unlikeable. “Indeed what I found is that whether it was politics or business, really talkative women were really slammed,” she said.

A Sign of the Times: Underearners Anonymous  Genevieve Smith‘s cover story in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine describes her experiences in “Underearner’s Anonymous,” a 12-step program for the chronically underpaid.  She explained how following the country’s economic recovery had made her a “connoisseur of financial pessimism” and why she was drawn to the program.

Behind the Scenes Diplomacy for Chen Guangcheng NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen has maintained a friendship with Chinese dissedent Chen Guangcheng for more than a decade and remained in touch with him as he tried to navigate between US and Chinese officials in the days following his daring escape from house arrest.  “He was confronted by two unattractive opportunities,” Cohen explained.

We Are Equal

The more things change, the more the stay the same.  At least that’s the feeling I’ve been getting reading through some of John Kennedy Toole’s fifty-plus-year-old writings in Butterfly in the Typewriter, a new biography of the writer that recently landed on my desk.

Entertainingly, many of Toole’s observations on New York still seem fresh all these years later.  For example, Toole describes — with a certain grim glee — “the masochism of living in New York, which has become the Inferno of America” (that is to say, it typifies “the American Dream as Apocalypse”).  But I was especially struck by this response to an exam question Toole wrote in 1955: 

Our government tells us we are equal, even though we enjoy economic freedom.  There are, of course, many citizens who believe wholeheartedly that this is true.  It is taught to all school children as the catechism of our government, as dogma.

But when these children are faced with the stark reality that school is over, that they are no longer “actives” in their fraternity, that they have their degree in Business Administration and that the regular checks from home are no longer forthcoming, the dogma which they so firmly believed explodes in their faces.

I was immediately reminded of a recent college graduate who joined The Takeaway a few months ago.  “We also were told a narrative our whole lives that if we did well in school and attended college, you know, there’d be good middle class jobs waiting for us,”  Chris Galloway said.  As he explained on the show, when Chris finished his degree and found himself jobless — and tens of thousands of dollars in debt — his perspective changed dramatically.

One could argue that the factors Toole observed exploding “the catechism of our government” half a century ago were in many ways different from the factors Galloway and other young graduates experience today.  But the tension between that “dogma” and the reality — the tension between a promising young graduate’s expectations, aspirations, and prospects — seems pretty much the same.

(For more on Toole, check out Cory McLachlan’s wonderful essay in The Millions about the process of researching Butterfly in the Typewriter).

The Principled Quit

To get a little perspective on Greg Smith’s “I quit” letter to Goldman Sachs while brainstorming at work today, I decided to call up Evan Harris.  Back in 1995 she was pretty much the poster-child for quitting.  She quit her job, boyfriend, and city, and started a zine called Quitters Quarterly.  She was featured in an episode of This American Life, and she wrote a book called The Quit.  Seventeen years later? She’s married with kids, back in her hometown. Here’s what she told me.

Recently on The Takeaway

Here are just some of the segments I’ve recently worked on for The Takeaway:

A New Legal Challenge to Affirmative Action “Since George Washington, universities have been thought of as places where the American melting-pot idea could be realized, in part,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger told The Takeaway.  Nearly a decade ago, Bollinger was part of two landmark Supreme Court Cases on affirmative action, Gratz vs. Bollinger and Grutter vs. Bollinger.  He weighed in on how the new challenge to affirmative action posed by the Fisher vs. Texas case could change the face of the student body of universities of the future.

NYPD Surveillance Program Monitored Muslim Students at 13 Colleges A recently leaked New York Police Department report provides a startling picture of just how far the NYPD’s intelligence division went in a surveillance program targeting monitoring Muslims students at 13 colleges in the northeast. CUNY student Jawad Rasul told The Takeaway he was shocked to find out he’d given an undercover agent a ride to a student whitewater rafting trip. “These things come out which really are kind of a slap in the face to the people who are trying to assimilate into the country and lose our foreign identity to become American,” he said. (More on this story from the WNYC Newsroom.)

Electoral Demographics and the History of Presidential Primaries  Ken C. Davis, author of Don’t Much About History joined the show to help  fact-check some claims made by writer Timothy Egan in a recent New York Times op-ed.  “There is no other way to put this without resorting to demographic bluntness: the small fraction of Americans who are trying to pick the Republican nominee are old, white, uniformly Christian and unrepresentative of the nation at large,” Egan claimed.  Davis explained why that comparison is somewhat — but not entirely — accurate.

60 Lives Connected in the Largest Chain of Kidney Transplants  Candice and Michael Ryan, a husband and wife kidney recipient and donor shared their moving experience as part of the largest-ever chain of kidney transplants.  “It’s life-changing,” an emotional Candice Ryan told The Takeaway.  Check out The New York Times’ incredible multimedia coverage of this story here.

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jingping Visits The US  The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows explained how the Communist Party’s role in business has evolved in China.  Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association also joined the show to discuss how Vice-President Xi’s visit to the state would reinforce a multi-billion dollar trade partnership.

California’s Ban on Gay Marriage Struck Down  “You cannot give a right to marry and then take it away solely on the ground that the individuals that you are taking it away from are a despised or disfavored group,” explained NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino.  While working on this segment, I also recorded a short audio interview with John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, a phenomenal couple.  Read more about them here or listen to a longer interview with them from 2010 here.

Tebow Bill May Allow Home-Schoolers to Play on High School Teams  Homeschooler Patrick Foss is a talented soccer player heading to University of Virginia in the fall to play college soccer. He told The Takeaway he wished he’d been able to play soccer on the local high school team. “My parents are taxpayers just like next door neighbors, just like the person two doors down who is the starting point-guard at our high school,” he said.

Ten Years Later

For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”

My own September 11th story is unremarkable.  At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia.  I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called.  Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying.  Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either.  I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.

My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents.  Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser).  The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus.  A few months later, I visited my brother in New York.  He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11.  We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust.  I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central.  It still didn’t make sense.

It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death.  In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”

Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance.  Hate could not defeat our hope.  And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.

I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out.  They give me hope.

Remembering Photojournalists Killed in Misrata

I never met Chris Hondros.   But he took my photo once, on a very cold day two years ago when  I was part of a media gaggle outside Bernie Madoff’s Upper East Side apartment, waiting for the Ponzi-schemer to return home from a court appearance.

When I first saw that photo, the novelty of it tickled me. The camera had been turned on me — a media peon with a very minor role in the Madoff drama. It was slightly flattering and slightly funny, in part because it documented me holding my favorite travel mug, a souvenir from the Greenberry’s coffee franchise in Charlottesville. I never noticed Hondros specifically, and I’ll never know if he had been assigned to document the media scrum that day, or if this particular shot was just one he took while waiting for Madoff, bored like the rest of us.

Since hearing news of the deaths of Hondros and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Misrata yesterday that photo has taken on a completely new meaning — and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.   In light of Hondros’ death, the photo is a reminder to me that the world — and I don’t just mean the world of journalism, or its New York microcosm — really is quite small and interconnected.  And it reminds me that journalists everywhere, every day, can be made to pay a steep price for doing their jobs.

When Madoff’s car arrived that day, the crowd was caught off-guard.  CNN got the shot it wanted — mostly because of the good instincts of the photojournalist I was field producing for, who at the last minute stationed me as a lookout so I could signal which way the car was coming. In the chaos of the stakeout, I left my prized Greenberry’s mug on Madoff’s stoop, and the photo used to remind me of the mug I lost that day. But of course now the loss it conveys is much heavier.

(For more on Hondros and Hetherington, check out The Takeaway’s audio remembrance, either of these — one and two — New York Times slide-shows, or this video diary).