Category Archives: Books

Harry Potter guest blog on MarkHolan.org

I wrote a guest post for Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog about the world of Harry Potter and a surprising connection to an Irish-American immigrant. I’ll send you over to Mark’s site to read the whole post, which is pegged to the new movie, “Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them.” READ MORE.

Q and A with Lucas Graves, author of ‘Deciding What’s True’

Here’s a link to my interview with Lucas Graves, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book, Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. We talked about how fact-checking works, fact-checking presidential debates and reform movements in journalism.

Holan: Let’s talk about the big question first. Why does fact-checking matter?

Graves: Fact-checking matters in a few different ways. The most important one for me is that it represents a new kind of commitment from journalists to try to pierce political rhetoric and hold politicians accountable. It’s a cultural shift in journalism. MORE …

Books for a vacation

With summer coming to an end, it seems appropriate to post this list I wrote up for a friend: my recommendations for books to read on vacation.

  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. Irreverent and funny. A dentist gets his identity stolen and has a run-in with an invented religious.
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fantasy. An adventure story, lovely writing, better than the movies. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit … .”
  • The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Modern Charles Dickens-like tale about an orphan and a stolen painting. Fascinating sub-themes of alcoholism and addiction.
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Nested short stories: historical, romantic, detective, farce and futuristic. The subtle but overarching theme is humanity’s own predation on its members. David Mitchell is a big favorite of mine.

Book Review: ‘The Road to Character’ by David Brooks

My most recent book review for the Tampa Bay Times is The Road to Character by David Brooks. I like to watch Brooks and Mark Shields analyze the week’s news on Fridays on PBS Newshour, so I particularly enjoyed reviewing his book.

Coming from a conservative political pundit who writes columns for the New York TimesThe Road to Character is not exactly what you might expect. Don’t look for mentions of the current crop of presidential candidates or hand-wringing over that terrible news on the front page of the newspaper. Instead, David Brooks has written a deeply meditative reflection on personal character and living a life of meaning. To take such a deep dive into the heart of living, Brooks turns away from contemporary society and looks to historical figures — St. Augustine, George Eliot, Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, to name just a few — for his inspiration. Read more …

Book Review: ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of my favorite novelists, so I was happy to review his new book for the Tampa Bay Times. Here’s how it starts:

If you’re looking for a writer who can do any style or genre, then David Mitchell fits the bill.

His 2004 novel Cloud Atlas had it all, to an almost absurd degree: historical fiction, a detective story, modern literary farce and futuristic sci-fi fantasy. Cloud Atlas was more like a series of stitched-together short stories than a novel, but it pursued a unifying thematic thread: how human beings prey upon each other for their own ends, but occasionally do selfless things that point toward freedom.

Cloud Atlas was beguiling enough to capture the attention of Hollywood filmmakers, while Mitchell continued writing new books, including a realistic coming-of-age novel set in 1980s Britain (Black Swan Green) and an unconventional love story set in Nagasaki in 1799 (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Mitchell and his wife even tackled nonfiction, translating the memoir of an autistic Japanese teen, titled The Reason I Jump, into English.

Fans of Mitchell like me couldn’t help but wonder: What’s next?

Read the whole review.

The 2014 Global Fact-checking Summit in London (photo gallery)

In June, I attended the Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. About 50 fact-checkers from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia attended. The conference was  hosted by the Poynter Institute, organized by Duke University’s Bill Adair (PolitiFact’s founding editor), and funded by the Omidyar Network, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, craigconnects, the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Full Fact.

The conference was fantastic, and seeing London for the first time was a real treat. Here are a few photos and comments from my trip. Click on the first photo to launch the gallery.

Visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library

Last weekend we made a charming visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The library is renowned for having more than 70 First Folios of Shakespeare’s plays (and depending on how you count, as many as 82), including one on view under glass with a neat interactive display.

Founders Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were obsessed with collecting the folios in the early 1900s, and today the library focuses its collection on all materials related to Shakespeare, as well as materials from 1450 to the early 1700s.

We signed up for a tour of the Reading Room, which includes the marvelous stained glass window depicting scenes from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It:

All the world ’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. …

See Morgan Freeman deliver the full speech here (3 minutes).  My photo of the library window doesn’t really do it justice.

As You Like It

I was also fond of the statue of Puck; the base of the statue has an inscription from the character in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Here’s its context from the play:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck

Finally, I include this marvelous bust of the Bard himself. I know there’s raging debate over which likenesses of Shakespeare are historically accurate. This one, I think, captures his artistic  spirit.

Will

A reader’s review of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ the movie (versus the book)

I’m an unabashed fan of the novel “Cloud Atlas,” so I was pretty nervous about the idea of a movie. After the critics panned it, I should have been forlorn, right? But I saw it for myself and loved it, really loved it.

The reviews of the movie “Cloud Atlas” have struggled to summarize its storyline because its based on a novel that heaps storyline upon storyline and leaps from one time period to another. It’s about a young attorney in the 1700s on a voyage through the South Pacific who succumbs to a strange illness and tries to help an escaped slave. It’s about a dashing young musician in the 1930s who wins an apprenticeship with an aging composer. It’s about a muck-raking reporter in 1970s California who tries to expose a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. It’s about an aging English publisher in the 1990s; he’s unwittingly committed to a nursing home by his malicious brother. It’s about a science-fiction future, when a clone tries to escape enslavement from “corpocracy” and inspires others to rebel. And it’s about the farther future, after “The Fall,”  when humanity tries to put itself back together in Hawaii after apocalyptic cataclysm.

Like most postmodern or post-postmodern novels, “Cloud Atlas” the book reminds readers constantly that what they’re reading is fiction. Its purpose is to layer multiple stories on top of each other so that a larger, different story emerges, much the way impressionist painters layered paint on canvas. It’s not a traditional narrative, but a story of ideas.  “Cloud Atlas” then becomes a meditation of how the strong prey on the weak, how the predators justify their actions, and how the weak find ways to resist.

The movie, interestingly, embraces most of the novel’s strange quirks and narrative play. (It also takes some interesting liberties with the book’s plot.) This isn’t a movie with a beginning a middle and and end, but many beginnings, many middles and many endings.

Different actors play different roles in the film, and some have suggested that one way to read this casting is as the same souls traveling through time. I would reject this reading of the progression of souls — even if the filmmakers intended it. For one thing, the idea doesn’t make much sense, and in the movie there’s no natural sense of how the characters are particularly connected. And for another thing, some of the actors are in such heavy make-up that you can’t even tell it’s the same actor. (I strongly disagree with the reviews that claim the actors always remain recognizable.)

So then why do I think this casting “works” anyway? Because it reminds you that the specific stories are connected thematically, not literally. It’s like a live stage play where the actors play different roles; it serves to remind you that you are watching a narrative that was created by human beings to explore ideas.

I went to “Cloud Atlas” with someone (Mark) who hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the movie and could follow it easily; it wasn’t as complicated as the reviewers would have you think. So with all that in mind, I would urge you to see “Cloud Atlas”. It doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in a big bow or end with a big musical number. Instead, it’s just an interesting, beautiful movie that will make you think.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max

I really liked this journalistic account of the life of David Foster Wallace. Its primary focus is on how his professional and personal life resulted in the publication of his novels and nonfiction, so a lot of it is about the publishing industry, universities where Wallace worked, and his literary friendships. Some of the reviews I read on Goodreads seemed to think the book wasn’t long enough, but it satisfied me — I did not want to read a long scholarly biography or extended analysis of his early childhood, etc.
A lot of this book is sad, though. It made me realize how private Wallace was in his life, and how little I knew about him (despite being a big fan) when he was alive. A lot of the revelations here involve his somewhat troubled personal life. I guess it should have been obvious to me that whoever wrote “Infinte Jest” would not be Mr. Happy Happy Normal, but I always liked to think of Wallace as living a life of basic contentment and balance. This book shows that wasn’t the case, at least part of the time, and in detail. On the whole though, I enjoyed this book, it was very readable, and it will certainly enhance my understanding of Wallace’s work. While I was reading it, I found myself constantly going back to my bookshelf to pull down Wallace’s work, and I can’t think of a better compliment to a literary biography than that. 

The Ireland visit, a reader’s tour, 2012

When the spouse and I went to Ireland in 2007 for the first time, I was in full-on James Joyce obsession, and we saw a lot. We did the Dublin Writers Museum. I had the glass of burgundy and gorgonzola sandwich at Davy Byrnes. We drove out to Sandycove to see Joyce’s Martello tower and the museum there. And in Galway, we went to Nora Barnacle’s home.

For our most recent trip, I was (am?) in full-on William Butler Yeats obsession. Sadly, though, we did not go to Sligo. There were good reasons for that, involving travel time and logistics and such like. So the ultimate Yeats tour of Ireland is still out there waiting to be undertaken.

No regrets, though! We had THREE great literary moments in our latest trip to Ireland, which I will recount here.

1. Dublin Literary Pub Crawl/Seamus Heaney radio interview. The pub crawl put together stops at Dublin’s historic pubs with  dramatic readings from Irish literature — Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” James Plunkett’s “Strumpet City,” Oscar Wilde on his travels in America. The actors who proclaimed the roles did a great job, and the pubs had great ambiance, too. The capper on our night out, though, was the ride back to our cousins’ house north of Dublin in County Meath. As we were leaving the city, a radio interview with Irish poet Seamus Heaney was just beginning. 

It’s very difficult to summarize the career of Seamus Heaney briefly, so I won’t try. I’ll just note here that he won the Nobel Prize in 1995, and I’ll link to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him and let you take it from there. Or, you could take a moment to read “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” (“Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:/ Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,/ Subtle discrimination by addresses/ With hardly an exception to the rule.”)

As we were pulling into the driveway at home, the radio interview had just ended, we had listened to some of Heaney’s major works, and it was the perfect ending to a memorable evening in the city of Dublin. 

2. Yeats exhibit at the National Library. We went to the National Library of Ireland on one of our first afternoons in the country, so the spouse could do some research. Lo and behold, their very notable exhibit of The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats (see worthwhile NYT write-up here) was still going! This exhibit opened in 2006, and we wanted to go when we visited in 2007, but we got too busy, and like I said, I was obsessed with Joyce back then, not Yeats. 

This time, I got to spend a blissful hour and a half in the exhibit while the spouse did research in the library’s reading room. 

Most, most wonderful about the exhibit was the area that showcased Yeats’ poetry. You couldn’t miss it, it was a screened seating area right when you entered the exhibit, and it included wall-sized renderings of his poems with out-loud readings. The recorded reading were by Yeats himself, Seamus Heaney, Sinead O’Connor and several others. Sinead did a particularly haunting job with “Easter 1916.” (I’ve looked for a CD of these readings to no avail, sad.) The National Library has posted a virtual tour of the Yeats exhibit, and I’ve spent time on it even now. It’s fascinating.

3. Listowel Writers Week/Paul Durcan reading. The reason we went at the time we did this year was so we could go to Listowel Writers Week, the literary festival is in its 41st year, in County Kerry. Listowel is a charming town, and the highlight of the week was getting to see the poet Paul Durcan read on Friday night. Durcan is another one of Ireland’s celebrated poets; the Irish Independent says he “comes second only to Seamus Heaney as our most famous living poet.” 

Durcan’s new book, “Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have my Being” was in every bookstore we stopped at in Ireland (Dublin, Ballybunion, Kinsale, Clonakilty). The night of the reading, the spouse stood in a very, very long line to get me an autographed copy. It’s one of my favorite presents I’ve received in a long time and my best memento of the trip. My favorite poem is “The Recession.” The inscription reads, “For Angie, Warmest wishes, Paul Durcan, Listowel, 1 June 2012.”