Happy humming

Tension City: Inside the Presidential
Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer. I really like this guy. 

And since this book of his is
about presidential debates (one of my most favorite things upon this earth),
we’d really be expecting that I’d be over the moon about it.

Well, guys, I liked this book just fine. But for me, it didn’t
really take off until the very end. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

The bulk of the book analyzes the debates from 1960 to 2008. And
since Lehrer moderated several of those debates, he can provide some really
great insight. 

One of the things that surprised me is that the moderator gets
all jittery before the debate, too. I’d always thought of the candidates being
all keyed up before a debate, but it turns out the moderators are also “shaking
like a leaf,” as Bob Schieffer put it.

So that stuff’s all
interesting enough, but it’s the book’s final chapter that really sings. It’s a
wonderfully congenial treatise on the importance of both freedom of speech/press
and civility in public discourse. (I liked it so much, I read it twice.)

Here’re some
beautiful sentences:

“The more voices
and views, the better. Always, the better. I do not want anybody shut up. The
addition of new and varied and multiple voices in the public mix is terrific
for our democracy. I am, in fact, a purist on the First Amendment guarantees of
everyone’s right to speak, no matter how disagreeable or ridiculous the words
may be.
The First Amendment
is about a right, not a requirement. It says nothing about requiring people to attack or inflame others to get ratings or to
be notice, or to take positions only for votes or to insult people for
entertainment value.” (p. 194)

And here, even more
succinctly: “… I believe as a moderator and as a citizen in the virtue of civil discourse as strongly as
I believe in the right to uncivil
discourse.” (p. 198)

Truly. I’d like to
just shake that man’s hand. 

I protest too much

Over Time by
Frank Deford
I’m thinking Frank Deford is partly to blame for my weird reading-sports-books behavior
The guy is smart and charming and funny, and
he’s on NPR (talking about sports) every Wednesday morning while I’m cruising
to work, so he’s part of my little world and I’ve become wickedly fond of him.
Even when he’s talking about athletes I’ve never heard of, or
sports I completely don’t care about (we’re talking: football, basketball,
baseball, tennis, soccer, golf… let’s just say: most sports), I’m always all
excited to hear what he has to say. He’s got that kind of talent.   
And guys! He wrote the novel Bliss Remembered, which I adored a couple of years ago.
This guy’s got it going on.

So when his memoir appeared, I was all over that.
And, true to form, he’s once again… smart and charming and funny.
And for all you NPR listeners who know his voice by heart, there’s
the added benefit of being able to hear his voice reading the book to you in
your head.
There’re plenty-o-sports celebrities in the book, and the one who
stands out to me most is Arthur Ashe. It’s refreshing to hear that some people
really are good people, in a world
where so many of the stories we hear are about the disappointments and lies.
(Roger Clemens, we’re looking at you.)
Deford also gives a sense of the life of a sports journalist, and
I love that stuff. It’s a very different work life from what most of us
experience, and it’s fascinating.  
So, yeah. Read this one, and then if you’re just aching for more,
give Robert Lipsyte’s An Accidental Sportswriter a whirl.  
These sportswriters? They can really write.

Most fun learning in a long while

Stranger Than
Fiction: The Art of Literary Journalism
William McKeen
Here’s exactly how to make a geek girl happy: 
While she’s listening
to an audiobook lecture series about literary journalism, address her as “fun-seeker.”
Professor McKeen, the dear man, does this precise thing, and it gladdened my
heart. Here’s how he starts out some of his lectures: “All right, fun-seekers…”
I mean, those are some encouraging words. I actually do realize
I’m not the life of the party, but being told I’m a fun-seeker when listening to something semi-academic… oh, this
makes me a happy one.
So this audio series had me completely blissing out, because I am all about the literary journalism.
And this guy is so wonderfully smart about the subject, and he’s
engaging as all hell to listen to.
And guys! He’s talking about Tom Wolfe (in his obnoxious white
suit) and Truman Capote (in his purple cape) and George Plimpton (playing football with the Detroit Tigers) and Hunter S. Thompson (getting pummeled by the Hells Angels) and Gay Talese (who would churn
out a whopping single paragraph each day, and then stick it on the wall and
read it from across the room using binoculars). These are some odd ducks.  
And this lecture series puts them all in context and relates them
to one another in a way that is completely fascinating to learn.
If I hadn’t been driving while listening, I’d’ve been jotting down
lots of titles I need to read. Instead, I did the thing where I repeat it to
myself incessantly, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold…” to
try to remember it upon disembarking from the car.

And: happiness. In the final lecture, McKeen gives a list of recommended further reading. 

So, yes. The Modern Scholar series is improving my world. And the
“Stranger Than Fiction” lectures are my favorite of the bunch.

Serendipitous discovery

Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ’n’ Roll Life by Robert Hilburn
Bono introduces this book, and I’ve fallen in love with him because of the way he writes. My land, what a gorgeous introduction. And the thing is, Bono’s intro makes you crave hearing about Hilburn-the-elusive-journalist’s story just as much as hearing Bono’s, Lennon’s, Dylan’s, Cash’s…
And then Hilburn’s voice starts, and man. How did I almost never read this book?!
I only checked it out from the library because I ran across a copy while browsing books at a secondhand record store I visited only because a visiting-from-out-of-town friend likes secondhand record stores. Which makes me wonder how many other great things I am—right this very second—missing out on, because some random turn of events has not yet led me to them.
Hilburn was a music critic at the Los Angeles Times, and over the years he got to talk to darn near everyone significant in rock. And it seems he had a skill at developing a rapport with most of them, because the interviews often turned into real conversations.
So, as the title suggests, Hilburn has eaten Corn Flakes with John Lennon, and he’s also caught him sneaking bites of a candy bar when Yoko wasn’t looking. (Lennon was supposed to be on this uber-healthful diet.) And Bob Dylan played part of Hilburn’s recommended set list at a concert in Israel. This book is filled with good stuff like that.
He’s interviewed Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, and oodles of other big names over the years.
Great writing and an interesting personal narrative, interwoven with stories about rock stars. Fabulous.

Yeah, sports again

An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir by Robert Lipsyte I’ll say it once again: I am no sports fan. But sports writing sometimes just gets to me. It’s often just so beautiful. So the title of this book kind of grabbed me, and then I saw something in a review about the book’s description of an “encounter” with Mickey Mantle. So it was no longer a choice—I had to place a hold. And, like the best books, the thing I went in for wasn’t even the very best it had to offer. It has descriptions of covering Muhammad Ali back when he was still Cassius Clay—when Clay beat Sonny Liston, here’s Lipsyte: “I began thinking of a lede. Then Liston sat down on his stool and wouldn’t get up, and it was over. Clay capered on the ring apron, yelling at the press, ‘Eat your words!’ And then it was my turn, minutes to deadline, banging out a paragraph on my little Olivetti, ripping out the page, handing it to the telegrapher at my side…” (p. 67) Man, that’s exciting. (I’m a total sucker for stories of journalists under tight deadline.) In between the anecdotes, there’s also a very real, very personal analysis of what it means to be a sportswriter. It’s more complex and interesting than it appears at first glance. For example, was Lipsyte right or wrong to point out—right after Mickey Mantle’s death—that Mantle probably jumped ahead in line for a new kidney, even though he was dying of cancer and should not have received a kidney at all? People want to think well of their heroes, but what if their heroes are doing crappy things? What’s a sportswriter to do? So this is a fine memoir. It’s personal in the best ways—Lipsyte’s describing his own journey, and it includes some great moments.One of my favorite parts was when he was assigned to cover NASCAR for the New York Times. All it took was a ride around the track with Mark Martin, and Lipsyte was hooked. He became a NASCAR junkie, and he wanted to drive one of them cars. So it got all arranged so he could drive a Petty car around the track a few times. It’s perfectly wonderful to read how the staid sportswriter turned into an animal behind the wheel. He writes that as he drove his rental car later that evening, he was feeling calm. “… I felt amused at and offended by road hogs, ragers, and show-offs. They couldn’t get to me anymore. I had driven at speed.” (pp. 193-194) That just makes me smile.So I love the deadpan wording, and I also love the way he describes how he learned that driving a race car is not as simple as pressing your foot to the floor and turning left. The book’s final chapter, about his dad, is re-readable. This is just a lovely book. When I read the last page, I stood up and just tried not to cry.

The interviewer

Truth Be Told: Off the Record about Favorite Guests, Memorable Moments, Funniest Jokes, and a Half Century of Asking Questions by Larry King

Despite the things I didn’t love about this book, I liked it plenty.

I’ll lead with the negatives: This is not a well-thought-out memoir. (It wasn’t meant to be.) This is a collection of anecdotes, strung together rather loosely. Probably it should have been called Stories I Tell My Friends.

But still I liked it. And I’m not even a big Larry King fan. (If I’m in a cable TV environment [oh, hotel rooms!] I’m watching junk like HGTV and What Not to Wear and those scary-intense shows about wedding planning. So I haven’t actually watched Larry King so very often.)

But the guy’s met darn near everyone interesting and important, and he tells great stories about them.

For example — I like envisioning Larry King and Colin Powell leading off the dancing every year at Ben Bradlee’s big soiree. That’s excellent stuff. Who’da thunk?

My favorite part of the book, though, is this: I like the way he writes about his life’s work. Turns out, I’m a complete sucker for books about people’s work, when they really, really love their work.

Here’s a sentence from page 1, when he’s describing how conscious he is of time: “When you’ve repeatedly got to slide into a commercial break, you understand exactly how long five seconds lasts.”

He also tells a hilarious story about his first radio job and his first time on the air, when he completely froze up and ended up playing the theme song 3 times to cover his silence when “the station manager kicked open the control room door and screamed: ‘This is a communications business!’” (p. 3)

I love that. I love it because it’s fabulous that the guy kicked in the door and screamed exactly that, and I love it because it shows that even a Great once was a scared kid. It’s wonderfully human, and you gotta like that.

So yes, I didn’t love this book, but I liked it plenty.

And then The Onion told me what truly was involved in a Larry King interview, from the other side of the table…

NASA Simulator Prepares Astronauts For Rigors Of An Interview With Larry King

Celebrity book extravaganza

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness by Neil Strauss
This is the summer of the celebrity books. Or maybe it’s just my summer of such stuff. But I think it’s a bigger thing — it’s even hit the news. At any rate, I’ve been devouring them like they’re going out of business.
During the same weeks I was listening to Life by Keith Richards on audio, I was reading this book, which consists of the best parts of celebrity—mainly rock star—interviews. Pretty fascinating.
Neil Strauss has written for Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and he’s interviewed some crazy-*** people.
The way this book is structured is kind of weird, and I mean good-weird. Lots of the interviews are diced up and then scattered throughout the book, which is arranged in “Acts” that key off a theme. (e.g., “Act Three, or, Mean Guys with Long Hair”)
The result is that you read segments of interviews that flow naturally into the topic of the interview that follows; the transitions are really smooth. Which is strange and surprising, especially when you have Russell Brand following Ryan Adams. And Lionel Richie following N.W.A. (Yeah, I didn’t know who N.W.A. was till I read this.)
Lots of people come off sounding pretty darn crazy. And some (Jay Leno, Bruce Springsteen) leave you with a good feeling overall.
Some of the most interesting interviews are actually with people I’ve never heard of, or people who aren’t even famous. When Strauss talked with a roadie, interesting.
In addition to being surprisingly satisfying to read, this book also is forgiving if you decide to do a serious skim of a section or two or seven. You can just skip over the interviews that don’t grab you, and then you can dive back into the next one. No harm, no foul. The librarian says so.

A close call

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber
Who knew there wasn’t a book—until now—about the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan? I guess I never thought to look for such a thing.
But now it exists, and it’s a darn good book, especially for the presidential history geeks among us.
Del Quentin Wilber, a journalist at the Washington Post [pause here for impassioned shouts of adoration for said newspaper] did all the good investigative stuff journalists do, and he pieces together an account of the events of March 30, 1981, and the weeks that followed.
And he tells it in that engaging journalistic style that makes you feel like you were there.
The NPR story that alerted me to this book includes an excerpt from the Secret Service radio recording at the moment when Jerry Parr, the lead agent on the scene, realized that Reagan had been shot. (They were already in the car, headed for the White House.) When you hear the calm in Parr’s voice, it really makes a person glad the Secret Service exists.
We all know the folklore about Reagan’s jocularity following the assassination attempt.
But the thing we didn’t know at the time was how close the bullet was to Reagan’s heart. That whole scene could have turned out much worse for him, and now, 30 years later, we’re just getting a better sense of that.
Anyway, to the human interest story…
Keeping in mind that I’m not exactly a fan of Reagan’s policies, I really have to confess I like the guy as a human.
Not only because he walked himself into the hospital with a bullet in his chest, but because he responded with such grace and humor to that terrifying situation. Wilber reminds us how reassuring that was to a freaked-out American public.
His son Ron later said that his father was so jovial during those dire moments following his shooting because he was a performer at heart. Ronald Reagan seemed to confirm this when he said during a 1985 interview, “There was a crowd standing around. Somebody ought to entertain them some way.” (p. 219) I am so weirdly charmed by this.
Plus, the man was just witty, you know? Parr was the Secret Service agent who shoved Reagan into the car and jumped on top of him during the assassination attempt. When Parr retired in 1985, he visited Reagan in the Oval Office. Wilber tells us, “When the president saw him, he said, ‘You’re not going to throw me over the couch, are you?’” (p. 224)
This book was one of my Read-a-Thon choices, which means I read it from start to finish. Since I usually have 5+ books on the go at a time, it’s rare that I (happily) read a book straight through. This one fit the bill.

Legend(s) of radio

Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards
What could be more perfect than veteran broadcast journalist Bob Edwards writing about the legendary Edward R. Murrow?
Yup, you’ve got it: Bob Edwards reading aloud his book about Edward R. Murrow.
For years, I drove to work each morning with the soothing voice of Bob Edwards telling me the news of the day. So to hear his voice reading this great biography… this was very good.
Edwards describes Murrow as the father of broadcast journalism; Murrow set the standard.
I went into this book knowing that Murrow had become famous as a war correspondent in London, broadcasting from amidst the Blitz. And I knew about the McCarthy encounters from the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. But that’s about all I could tell you about Murrow.

I didn’t know about his early years working in lumber camps or the fact that he lied about his age on early job applications. I didn’t know he died too young. And I didn’t know about his show See It Now, which sounds like it was amazing. (No wonder it made little money and also made the network nervous.)
In addition to Edwards’ fine narration, the thing that makes this book excellent as an audiobook is that it includes excerpts, in Murrow’s own voice, from some of his broadcasts. Murrow’s Peabody-winning report about riding along on a bombing mission over Germany is so good I can’t find the words to describe it. We hear Murrow’s broadcast, and then Edwards, in very few words, explains why it’s so powerful.
This is good stuff.
And it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t require a huge time commitment; it’s only 4 ½ hours long. Despite its brevity, this thing packs a punch.


Herblock: A Cartoonist’s Life: Self-Portrait and Views of Washington from Roosevelt to Clinton by Herbert Block
I adore Herblock. His cartoons have made me laugh out loud. Often. And still. Even some of the cartoons I’ve seen oodles of times crack me up every time.
I swear: I started smiling broadly and had to work hard to prevent the laugh-out-loud thing—probably seeming like I had some serious issues or was newly madly in love—the other day at the grocery store, when thinking about this one. It’s my most favorite.
In this book, as in his cartoons, Herblock pulls no punches. In fact, he’s pretty darn scathing about those he didn’t like (we’re looking at you, Reagan, Eisenhower, Carter). And pretty gentle toward those he thought were OK (Humphrey, Kennedy).
So, since this is the more eye-widening-with-delight stuff, here’s one sample of the harsh (yet/therefore wildly entertaining) statements:
“Since his 1974 resignation, there have been periodic Nixon rehabilitations, often advanced by magazines and TV programs that apparently found they could tap a public fascination similar to the interest in chainsaw massacres and bloodsucking bats.” (p. 234)
There’s a fair amount of political commentary here, so this book suited me just fine. But there’s also enough info about Herblock himself to qualify this puppy as an autobiography.
And, being something of a muckety-muck himself in Washington, Herblock rubbed shoulders with lots of Names. He drops them gently.
He seems like a modest sort, which is impressive given his own stature as a Name.
The other thing a person can forget is this: Herblock was smart as all hell. Cartoons seem like they’re fun and games, but his stuff really sings… and stings.
Let’s be happy: There’s Herblock stuffall over… the interwebs.