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Retort

Justin Long vs. Jonathan Franzen

YouTube

Justin Long, who played the ‘Mac Guy’ in a series of ads, responds to Jonathan Franzen’s calling him “smug.” His movies, 'A Case of You,' and 'Best Man Down,' are in theaters soon.

I’m a huge fan of Franzen’s work, so in a weird way, just to be mentioned by him—no matter how pejoratively—was flattering. I’ve got to say, I thought a lot about The Kraus Project after I read it, and I thought it was an interesting essay—and one that I don’t necessarily disagree with. I love what he had to say about Karl Kraus, and the German point of view versus the romantic Italian and French way of looking at art, and finding aesthetic beauty in just walking down the street.

The Future Is Here

Whither Life?

Getty

Welcome to the future of life: synthetic life, that is. Craig Venter talks about his new book, where he argues that our genetic code is becoming interchangeable with digital codes. The implications will revolutionize our world.

What’s your big idea? The worlds of the genetic code, the chemicals A, C, G and T, are becoming interchangeable with the digital world, the ones and zeroes of computers, and we did this first with learning how to read the genetic code and converting the A, C, Gs and Ts into the computer code, and now we’ve been going the other direction, starting with ones and zeroes, re-writing the chemical code and then using that to create new life. So it’s a concept of the rapid interchangeability of DNA and digital information, the applications of that are we can now send life at the speed of light; send electromagnetic waves through the internet for example and recapitulate it at the other end, so in the future you’ll actually be able to download living things from your computer.

The Obligation to be Interesting

Getty

In an age of inane Twitter commentary, “likes,” and instant publication, one of the few critics standing athwart our culture and writing serious criticism is James Wolcott. A salute to his new collection of essays by William Giraldi.

In a 1932 letter to a friend, George Orwell complained that the book sections of newspapers “seem deliberately to seek out the dullest people they can get to review the dullest books.” Amis the Younger, writing about John Updike in 1976, had this to say about literary comment: “The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness. The literary pages throng with people about whom one has no real feelings either way—except that one can’t be bothered to read them.

Legal Files

Still Killing Time

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, via Redux

America’s favorite legal thriller writer is back with a sequel, “Sycamore Row,” to the book that made his name—which is making its Broadway debut. John Grisham talks courthouse morals with Thane Rosenbaum.

The bestseller lists in hardcover fiction are about to recalibrate like slot machines with the publication this week of John Grisham’s new novel, Sycamore Row, the highly-anticipated sequel to Grisham’s first and most literary novel, A Time to Kill. Readers have had to wait a long time to see Grisham’s first protagonist and presumptive alter ego, Jake Brigance, pacing around a courtroom again—A Time to Kill was published twenty-five years ago.

True Stories

You Killed My Son

StoryCorps

For 10 years now StoryCorps has captured real Americans talking about love and loss, pain and triumph. In honor of their anniversary, we publish this moving conversation between a woman and the man who killed her only son.

MARY JOHNSON, 58, talks with OSHEA ISRAEL, 34In 1993, Oshea Israel, 16, got into an argument with Laramiun Byrd, 20, at a party, and he shot and killed him. Laramiun was Mary Johnson’s only son.Mary Johnson: You took my son Laramiun’s life, and I needed to know why. The first time I asked you to meet with me, you said absolutely not. So I waited nine months and asked you again—and you said yes. You and I finally met in March 2005 at Stillwater Prison.

And Justice For All

Scott Turow: How I Write

Taylor Hill/Getty

The ‘Presumed Innocent’ author, whose new legal thriller is ‘Identical,’ talks about law school, being member of a band made up of superstar authors, and being able to practice law while he writes novels.

NC: Where did you grow up? ST: I grew up on the north side of Chicago, in West Rogers Park, an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood. When I was 13, my parents moved to Winnetka, Illinois, an upper class, WASPy suburb where Jews—as well as Blacks and Catholics—were unwelcome on many blocks. I suffered the spiritual equivalent of whiplash. NC: Where’s the best steak in Chicago?ST: At my house, cooked on my Big Green Egg over lump charcoal and mesquite.

Hacked

The Murdoch Omerta

Amazon

Even after years of bad headlines about phone hacking and police payoffs, just try writing about the Murdochs and you’ll see what happens. But NPR’s media man David Folkenflik has gone inside the empire to reveal their secrets.

It is entirely possible that if you regularly read The New York Times, live on the coasts, are younger than 55, don’t own a gun or a truck, or are, in other respects, a Blue State liberal, you have read more books and articles about Fox News, or its News Corp mothership, than you have spent, say, watching Fox News or reading The New York Post.The shelf of Murdochania groans. In the past year alone there has been The Rise and Fall of the Murdoch Empire by a former reporter for the now-shuttered News Corp property News of the World; Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst For Wealth and Power Shapes our World by an professor of journalism from Rupert Murdoch’s native Australia; Murdoch’s Pirates, about a private security force that operated within one part of the empire; The Fall of the House of Murdoch, by British writer Peter Jukes; Dial M for Murdoch, co-written by a member of Parliament and a journalist for the Independent; leaving aside for the moment the 2010 biography by Michael Wolff; the 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism; two new volumes on Fox News chief Roger Ailes.

Pulitzer Winner

Time Bandit

Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning literary thriller, “Goldfinch,” is set in a clamorous present, but mellowed by the timbre of an antique voice.

Reading Donna Tartt’s ravishing time warp of a novel, The Goldfinch, which is just out today (though several enraptured critics slipped their shackles and reviewed it weeks ahead of release, eager to gild this deserving bird with their own praise), I recalled the unmooring sensation I felt this summer when I read for the first time George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street. The eerily destabilizing effect of that book came down to this: it seemed to have been written by a keen-eyed visitor from a later century, with the voice and mindset of a more modern age.

Public Intellectual

America’s Most Popular Poet

Jill Toyoshiba/Chicago Tribune, via Newscom

He’s read by many—you can even find his poems in New York City subway cars—but what makes Billy Collins so loved? Austen Rosenfeld reads the latest collection to see what’s special about a Billy Collins poem.

On Aug. 31, a black and white photograph of Seamus Heaney filled the space above the fold of The New York Times. A close up of the late Irishman’s face, with his hard eyes that seem to be staring somewhere much farther than the day’s news, was a startling image to see while opening the paper on a Saturday morning. It’s a rare occurrence that a poet graces the front page of The New York Times. In fact, there are only a handful of instances. The death of Adrienne Rich was one example.

Softer Image?

Dick Is Back

CBS, via Youtube

The wan figure is gone, and it’s a pink-cheeked former VP out meeting the press this week to promote his new ‘Heart’ book. But his reappearance may be the last thing his party needs now, says Michelle Cottle.

Sweet Jesus, did anyone see either of Dick Cheney’s TV interviews this week? The man looks amazing. And I don’t mean amazing for a septuagenarian with a tortured health history. I’m talking there’s-an-oil-portrait-hidden-in-his-attic-growing-more-grotesque-by-the-day amazing. Gone is the wan, wasted figure of 2010, replaced by pink cheeks, a solid physique, and—dare I say it?—a twinkle in those pale blue eyes. Whoever’s donated heart now beats in the former VP’s chest must have been in crackerjack cardiac condition, because Dick has never looked better.

Portrait of The Artist

Lucian Freud’s Private World

David Montgomery/Getty

A new memoir exposes intimate details of the artist’s private life—from his burning temper, and excessive gambling to nude sittings with his 14-year-old daughter. By Erin Cunningham.

Lucian Freud led a guarded life. The late, great British modernist painter—and grandson of Sigmund Freud—valued his privacy. He maintained close circles of friends (whom he ensured would rarely interact with each other), and entrusted only a certain few with his personal information. From 1940 until the early 2000s, Freud participated in no press interviews; he was known to physically attack photographers who attempted to take his picture, and he cancelled the publication of two authorized biographies about himself during his lifetime.

Text & Context

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

AFP

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod analyzes the rise of a pervasive literary trope in the West—that of the abused Muslim girl.

This book seeks answers to the questions that presented themselves to me with such force after 9/11 when popular concern about Muslim women’s rights took off. As an anthropologist who had spent decades living in communities in the Middle East, I was uncomfortable with disjunction between the lives and experiences of Muslim women I had known and the popular media representations I encountered in the Western public sphere, the politically motivated justifications for military intervention on behalf of Muslim women that became common sense, and even the well-meaning humanitarian and rights work intended to relieve global women’s suffering.

Music and Wine

This Week’s Hot Reads

From the Steely Dan lead singer’s memoir to the golden age of American French cooking, here are this week’s hot reads.

Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen. Steely Dan co-founder and lead singer Donald Fagen’s new book Eminent Hipsters is partly a compilation of his essays and partly a journal he kept while on tour in 2012. Fagen, who majored in journalism as an undergraduate, includes vignettes about his awkward adolescence and growing up Jewish in the predominantly Christian Midwest—alongside critical assessments of his own musical influences, science fiction of the 1950s, and radio legend Jean Shepherd.

Sociopaths

Murder, She Wrote

New York Daily News Archive, via Getty

Jayne Anne Phillips talks about her new novel, ‘Quiet Dell,’ inspired by the ‘Bluebeard’ murders in Depression-era West Virginia, one of America’s most sensational serial killings.

Jayne Anne Phillips’s new novel was inspired by one of America’s most sensational mass murders. Quiet Dell follows a grisly true crime in which a serial killer known by the alias Harry Powers (the press called him “Bluebeard”) murdered 45-year-old Illinois widow Asta Eichler and her three children and Dorothy Lemke, a Massachusetts divorcee. Powers buried all five bodies outside a garage in Quiet Dell, West Virginia, where he had confined and then killed them.

Analysis

Branding Feminism

Grand Central Publishing

The Book of Jezebel is a glossy and irreverant encyclopedia for "the ladies." But blogger Ana Alvarez says she's tired of feminism's slick new makeover by the ladymag set.

Leave it to Jezebel co-founder Anna Holmes to edit what is sure to be the coffee table bible for middle-class feminists everywhere. The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things features a word-and-picture compilation of all things “relevant” to the “ladies.” Who these ladies are remains unclear, but so far we do know zits and ingrown hairs are in there alongside women’s history greats like bell hooks and Althea Gibson.

WTF

Book: JFK’s Brain Disappeared

AP

Did RFK steal it after autopsy?

This is by far the strangest thing you will read today. Or any day, probably. A new book claims that President John F. Kennedy’s brain disappeared after his autopsy—and his brother Robert may have stolen it. According to a new book, End of Days: The Assassination of John. F. Kennedy,  Kennedy’s brain apparently wasn’t buried with him, and was instead placed in a stainless steel container with a screwtop lid. The container was reportedly stored in a file cabinet of the Secret Service (…ok) before being moved to the National Archives. In October 1966, it was allegedly discovered that brain and other autopsy materials were missing. An investigation by then-Attorney General Ramsey Clark failed to recover the brain (ever), but some suspected Robert F. Kennedy stole the locker. Conspiracy theorists, go!

Read it at New York Post

New Faith

My Escape from Mormonism

Eddie Brady/Getty

Her family no longer believed in Mormonism, but she still had tenure at the church’s flagship university. Lynn K. Wilder on her heart-racing days hiding her apostasy—and her path to a new faith.

The summer of 2006, my husband and I mustered the courage to drive two hours away from our largely Mormon community in Utah to attend a non-Mormon church on a Saturday night. That way, no Mormon friends or priesthood leaders could possibly see us. We were paranoid, worried that if someone from Brigham Young University saw me at a non-denominational Christian church, I would lose my ecclesiastical clearance and my job as a professor.And I would have.

The Battle of Algiers

The Year of Camus

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Camus’s legacy is haunted by his hesitation to support Algerian independence, but Adam Kirsch says that he gets to the heart of questions over when to act—and when to be suspicious of ideology.

Some writers are lucky enough to be remembered 50 years after they die, and a few are even beloved. What is vanishingly rare, however, is for a long-dead writer to remain controversial. Albert Camus is one of those exceptions, a writer who still has the power to ignite political passions, because he managed to incorporate the history of the 20th century so deeply into his writing. As a novelist, philosopher, and activist, Camus came to stand in the public imagination for a scrupulously moral approach to politics—a liberalism tempered by suspicion of ideology, and adamantly committed to the value of the individual human life.

The Woman Who Saved Solomon

Solomon Northup’s story is so extraordinary that it seems incredible. Meet the civil rights crusader who rescued him from obscurity and made the movie ‘12 Years a Slave’ possible.

Last month, I wrote an article for The Daily Mail about the true story of Solomon Northup, a slave whose harrowing experiences form the basis of the movie 12 Years A Slave. As anyone who has seen the film will testify, Northup endured no end of brutality at the hands of various plantation managers and overseers, all of which are graphically depicted in Steve McQueen’s new film. When I filed the piece, my editor called to express some reservations.

The Biographer’s Song

A Life Lived Loud

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, via Getty

When will one of America’s most outrageous literary characters get the book he deserves? Adam Begley on a sloppy and insipid biography that doesn’t do justice to Mailer’s life.

A great believer in karma, and nearly as frank in his confessions as he was exuberant in his self-advertisements, Norman Mailer was surely convinced that he would get the biography he deserved. Well, there have been five so far, the first four published in the 1980s and 90s. The most recent, a great big, messy love letter, is about to land with a dull thud in your neighborhood bookstore. Maybe it’s quantity that counts in this particular karmic equation, and the proliferating accounts of Stormin’ Norman’s earthly transit are an indication of his great virtue as a writer.

How I Write