What I've been reading, featuring "Reporter" by Seymour Hersh, "Normal People" by Sally Rooney, and literary hot takes

  • “Reporter” by Seymour Hersh. Very apt one-word title; Hersh despite or because of his hard-headedness comes across as the living embodiment of the profession. Highly recommend to anyone with any interest in or respect for investigative journalism. Hersh is now one of my few heroes.

    It inspires mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, his career is a monumentally successful story that follows a copyboy from the South Side of Chicago who found his calling and thrived amidst a culture of self-censorship, conformity, and hierarchy with his idealism and work ethic exposing the protected secrets of institutions as powerful as the military, the White House, Capitol Hill, and to a smaller extent, Wall Street and the mafia. It’s astonishing too how single-handedly his successes come (on more than one occasion, Hersh refers to himself as a “lone wolf”) in an industry where the impact of reporting is cynically contingent on the politics of self-censorship, publication prestige, personal vendettas, and competitive one-upmanship: his Pulitzer-winning work uncovering the My Lai massacre came as a freelance journalist. Indeed, when his agent refuses his request to approach The New Yorker about any writing vacancies, Hersh visits its editor’s office without an appointment, secures a job on the spot, then fires his agent. Even when he finds a more permanent home in The New York Times and The New Yorker, the arrangements seem more like the hiring of a truth-seeking mercenary than an employee. But the results speak for themselves and the reader cannot help but admire that Hersh’s body of work has come largely on his own terms, without compromise of his integrity, objectivity, or values.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t shake the disappointment at the apparent rarity of Hersh-type reporters. A common thread in Hersh’s work is empathy for the powerless, which is too often unmatched by his peers. At his first reporting job, he is keen to break the story of a horrifying murder of a Chicago family by arson, but relaying the details to his editor, he is asked: “Ah, my good, dear, energetic Mr. Hersh. Do the, alas, poor, unfortunate victims happen to be of the Negro persuasion?” Hersh answers in the affirmative and the story is reduced to a single sentence along the lines of “Five Negroes died in a fire last night on the Southwest Side.” He repeatedly attributes this uncommon compassion, which manifests in his antiwar stance and skepticism of the conduct of every administration from Kennedy to Obama, to his upbringing among minorities in the South Side. I found it difficult then to resist the cynical thought that were it not for this man’s unlikely ascent to the media elite, the brutal rapes of murders of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the clandestine bombing of Cambodia would have not just been unquestioned, but entirely unknown and the Abu Ghraib abuses underreported. Sad enough that they went largely unpunished, which is in keeping with a recurring theme of the book that is maybe not emphasized enough: that for all the work that can go into an investigation, it is often not enough to have the information out there, so to speak. Change is repeatedly dulled by public disinterest, the industry declining to follow up a competitor’s story, a newspaper’s reach, a public refutation of fact, or irresponsible coverage.

    Underpinning all this pessimism is the certainty that the landscape of investigative journalism is much worse now than in Hersh’s heyday. Hersh alludes to this in the introduction, perhaps because reflecting on the sad state of affairs in an epilogue would sour the mood: “…it’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today. Of course I’m still trying.”

  • “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (h/t Helena). Really enjoyed this and am finding it difficult to say why without referring to specific details of my personal life. The excellent pacing made it a breeze to read despite its narrative unfolding over several years and it was interesting how modern and accessible the writing was—for example, it’s set in Ireland, but could generically have been set anywhere in the world owing to the lack of idiosyncratic detail and language.

    My mom read it after me and found it unrelatable because of how the characters melodramatize relationships and complicate issues that could be resolved very easily. Maybe this is a reflection of our times, though. My mom moved to Manila after a childhood in the province and stayed there until she was married and had three kids, while I’ve moved countries six times since graduating high school and nine times overall so the constant connection and reconnection in young adulthood that defines the central long-term relationship of the novel is a recurrent theme of my own life. I’m also just a sucker for stories that do a good job of aging and progressing platonic or romantic relationships alike over long time periods like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Boyhood.

  • The legacy of Atticus Finch in light of the December premiere of the Aaron Sorkin Broadway adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which is explicitly influenced by the revelations of “Go Set A Watchman” and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Perhaps his perfection was only ever as a father, and not as a civil-rights crusader. He teaches Scout and Jem a kind of radical empathy that he himself cannot sustain but that they might grow up to embody. That is the version of Atticus still beloved by many of the book’s readers: not a noble lawyer on a par with actual civil-rights heroes such as Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, or Morris Dees but a compassionate, courageous single dad raising his children as best he can.

…Not everyone, however, was inclined to agree, and not long after Rudin announced that Sorkin’s play would première in December, 2018, the estate of Harper Lee filed a lawsuit, alleging that the adaptation violated the spirit of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” At the heart of the dispute was a disagreement about the essential nature of Atticus. According to the estate, the character, as written by Lee, was “a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism,” while Sorkin had made him into an “apologist for the racial status quo.”

…In this new production, the empathy for which Atticus has always been celebrated— his belief, as Sorkin sees it, in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists”—would be his fundamental flaw. Of course, framing Atticus in this way compounds the complication of putting him at the center of the story: the tragedy, it suggest, isn’t that a black man loses his life, but that a white man loses his case.”

  • Two Roads for the New French Right: “Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established… In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern… France is a good place to start.”

  • Two recent books imagine the lives of the overlooked female characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey respectively. I did a similar exercise in high school imagining a dream of Penelope’s that is only alluded to in Book XIX.

  • From Twitter: “Give me your spiciest, maddest, most sacrilegious book opinion.” Some embedded below. One of mine is that books are a poor medium for comedy and those that are joke-dense enough that Humor is one of its listed genres are almost always bad, especially memoirs. I’ll generally dismiss books that feature a critic calling it “uproarious” on the front cover. I haven’t come across a book funnier than Weird Twitter or Demi Adejuyigbe’s Instagram stories on a good day.

    • I’ve started a GoodReads account and will try at some point to add some text to some of my reviews. Also thinking of starting a LetterBoxd.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What I've been reading, featuring les gilets jaunes, notes on trap music, and the revelation that was "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

“Trap is a form of soft power that takes the resources of the black underclass (raw talent, charisma, endurance, persistence, improvisation, dexterity, adaptability, beauty) and uses them to change the attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others, usually by making them admit they desire and admire those same things and will pay good money to share vicariously in even a collateral showering from below. This allows the trap artist to transition from an environment where raw hard power dominates and life is nasty, brutal, and short to the world of celebrity, the Valhalla of excess, lucre, influence, fame — the only transparently and sincerely valued site of belonging in our culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that insofar as you’re interested in having a good time, there’s probably never been a sound so perfectly suited to having every kind of fun disallowed in conservative America.”

  • Esquire rebukes the New York Times bubble and their inadvertently self-incriminating headline “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism and How We Missed It” (which has since been changed slightly). Some choice tweets taking exception:

 
 
  • Not really a thing I "read” (I should change the name of this blog series), but I watched “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” this week. It turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve watched from this year and easily the most fun. I can’t remember the last time a movie positively defied my expectations this much; I was expecting it to be a direct-to-TV production based on its title and its featuring a talking-pig character, plus this is the studio (Sony) that bungled the live-action Spider-Man franchise and last year gave us the “Emoji Movie”. This blew me away, so much so that I’ll bullet-point some superlatives below:

    • It might be the funniest movie to come out this year. The only other contender to me would be “Date Night”, another movie that defied genre expectations. I found the humor in “The Death of Stalin” to be far beneath Armando Iannucci’s other work. Keep in mind I have not seen “Vice”, “Sorry to Bother You”, “Girls Trip”, “Eighth Grade”, or “mid90s".

    • It’s the best superhero movie since “The Dark Knight” (2008) if you don’t count the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy (which I would; it’s the topic of a heated debate I’ve had with several friends which I’ll spare you but essentially I will not back down from my claim that Caesar is the greatest superhero ever put to screen) and maybe the freshest Hollywood take on the genre since “Chronicle” (2012).

    • It’s the best animated movie since either “Rango” (2011), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011), or “Toy Story 3” (2010). I loved “Zootopia” (2016) and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), but this year’s “Spider-Man” is just better and visually more creative. For all the praise Pixar gets for its increasingly realistic animation, “Spider-Man” (and to a lesser extent, the “Kung Fu Panda” series) makes a compelling counter-argument for animation that doesn’t pretend not to be animation.

More soon, but this post was long enough.