Tom Carson

  • Art Anticipates Life

    Aside from being in poor taste, exchanging high-fives is no doubt a clumsy business on Zoom, which is presumably how Alfred A. Knopf’s marketing team does its conferring these days. Even so, they must have been agog when The End of October ($28), journalist Lawrence Wright’s alternately sober-minded and gaudy new thriller about a devastating global pandemic, got transformed into the season’s most sensational publishing event by a genuine pandemic’s eruption. Apparently, the publication date did get moved up—Christ, what if they find a vaccine first?—but only by a couple of weeks. Now that the

  • Bard Times

    The most popular honorary American of all time is unquestionably Jesus of Nazareth. But Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s latest book makes a lively case for Will as the man from Galilee’s perennial runner-up among unwitting citizens of the USA. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future blends Shapiro’s usual zest for unpacking time-capsule moments (e.g., The Year of Lear) with a newfound relish for Trump-era topicality. True, you may be tempted to groan at his fatuous subtitle—our future, really? Say it ain’t so, Weird Sisters. But he’s contrived an

  • Dancing to the Music of Time

    Foolproof rules for journalists who cover the arts are elusive, but a few third rails do stand out. For instance, you don’t wonder “But what was he driving at?” about Picasso’s Guernica. You don’t complain about the auditorium’s poor acoustics at a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. And as we learn from choreographer Mark Morris’s brash, candid, often caustic, and totally delightful memoir Out Loud, you don’t ask this country’s most vital modern-dance dynamo since Martha Graham—sorry, Twyla Tharp fans—to describe his philosophy of dance.

    The last journalist reckless enough to try got a notoriously

  • Room with a Viewer

    Soon after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, a New York Times editor told reporter Amy Chozick that the paper wasn’t going to bother assigning any of its political gumshoes to the DJT beat: “Let the TV writers do it.” You wouldn’t really blame James Poniewozik if he got special pleasure out of repeating that anecdote from Chozick’s campaign memoir Chasing Hillary in his own Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America (Liveright, $28).

    Poniewozik was then and is now the Times’ chief television critic, and guess who’s laughing last. His new

  • Between the Reenactments

    Not many writers mix up geniality and astuteness as enjoyably as Tony Horwitz does. He’s got a rare knack for spotting topics whose eccentricity lets him juxtapose the baleful past and the cuckoo present in arresting, provocative, hugely entertaining ways. Most readers first discovered his originality thanks to 1998’s Confederates in the Attic, which turned the wacky world of Civil War reenactors into fodder for an inspired, seriocomic meditation on the war itself as America’s ultimate unfinished business.

    He did it again with Blue Latitudes, following in Captain James Cook’s watery footsteps

  • Long Division

    Michael Tomasky wants his readers to understand right up front that If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved isn’t just another liberal screed provoked by anguish at Donald Trump’s presidency. “Chapter for chapter, most of this book could have appeared just as it now stands” if Hillary Clinton had won the White House, he tells us, and he began mulling the project in the full expectation she was going to do just that. Since Tomasky has written generally favorable books about both her and Bill, it’s a safe guess that she’d have been his beleaguered heroine in that

  • Mess With Texas

    Long before Billy Lee Brammer died at age forty-eight in Austin in 1978, he’d become something his native Texas hadn’t been familiar with until he popped up: an authentic, homegrown literary legend. Katherine Anne Porter had bailed for the East Coast early, and her mandarin reputation was a horse of a paler color in any case. The grand old man of Texan letters at the time, J. Frank Dobie, was a folklorist and Western historian to whom “provincialism” was no insult and never would be.

    Going by the fascinating portrait of him in Leaving the Gay Place, Tracy Daugherty’s superbly gauged and

  • Zombieland, USA

    Except for its action-packed title, Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism doesn’t have much in common with the smack-talking chronicles of Hollywood rebels he’s best known for. A onetime editor at Premiere magazine, he first hit pay dirt twenty years ago with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Only cinephilia’s most stubborn vegans didn’t immediately gobble up that gooey cheeseburger of a book.

    Easy Riders, Raging Bulls charts a “Golden Age” sparked by Arthur

  • The Sweet Smell of Excess

    If an unstoppable stream of verbal and vocal pyrotechnics is your definition of comedy genius, Robin Williams had no peers. Nonetheless, he was hardly the most original or emblematic comedian of his generation. Andy Kaufman was, although any votes for Steve Martin—the first real post-counterculture comic, anticipating Kaufman more than is commonly recognized—will be counted.

    David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld—both at home with an affectlessness 180 degrees removed from Williams’s frantic style—were undoubtedly more influential in the long run. Even his close friend Billy Crystal bettered him

  • Crash, Bern

    Fordham sociology professor Heather Gautney went to work in Bernie Sanders’s Senate office on an academic fellowship in 2012 and then signed up for his 2016 presidential campaign, ultimately playing a role in the Sandernistas’ wrangling over the party platform with Hillary Clinton’s DNC apparatchiks at that year’s Democratic convention. To say the least, aiming for a conciliatory note in the aftermath doesn’t interest her much. Especially when she goes prescriptive, reading Crashing the Party: From the Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement(Verso, $17) can feel like watching a bulldozer

  • Fair Game

    A couple of years into devising the signature magazine of the 1980s, Tina Brown decided she was sick of people writing about her gift for generating “buzz.” That made what she did sound “fake and manufactured,” Brown lamented: “It’s a put-down, a dismissal of impact.” Not unreasonably, she wondered if a male editor in her shoes would get similarly trivializing treatment.

    Reading this over thirty years later in The Vanity Fair Diaries, 1983–1992 (Henry Holt, $32), you may wonder if innovative women in other fields went through similar moments of rebelling against the essence of their genius.

  • Block Bluster

    “There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation,” W. C. Fields supposedly said. A title like Trump Is F✳︎cking Crazy (This Is Not a Joke) (Blue Rider Press, $27) certainly does that. What it doesn’t do is inspire much confidence that the crass political discourse the Trump era has fostered will turn chockablock with bonhomie anytime soon. But Keith Olbermann doubtless thinks he’s fighting fire with fire.

    MSNBC’s former Countdown panjandrum has certainly accepted and even thrived on the idea that he was born to put the tribe back in diatribe

  • POTUS Position

    Around a decade ago, future Obama White House speechwriter David Litt was a contented Ivy League slacker. The breed probably sounds oxymoronic to many Americans, but where do you think the CIA got its most imaginative recruits in the 1950s? Funnily enough, it’s also where postmodern TV comedy shows get their savviest writers today.

    Litt’s story suggests that’s no coincidence at all. By his senior year at Yale, he’d not only interned at The Onion—his idea of nirvana until too few of his gags made the cut—but also applied for a job with the Agency, which went nowhere even faster. He wound up

  • Half-Full of It

    Most adults don’t have much use for physicians under the impression that dispensing the occasional lollipop is vital to keeping the patient cooperative. Even before The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think (St. Martin’s Press, $27) has properly gotten under way, author Ruy Teixeira doesn’t do himself any favors on that score. A dedication whose raised-fist summons to solidarity would have been at home on a 1930s Popular Front banner—“For the broad left and the struggle for a better future”—is followed by this kindergarten postscript: “Oh, and by the way, cheer

  • Rebel Pol

    Starting with its unsolemn title, onetime Florida congressman Trey Radel's Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food (Blue Rider Press, $27) is the most puckish political memoir in recent—or, for that matter, remote—memory. Then again, winning readers over by projecting wry self-amusement does come in handy when you're hoping to convince people you aren't a blithering idiot. Known as the "hip-hop conservative" for his ideologically incongruous—but disarming—love of classic fight-the-power rappers Public Enemy and NWA, Radel is the freshman Republican who got

  • Book of Ruth

    Now that Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) is out of contention, it's safe to say no sitting Supreme Court justice has the adoring fan base Ruth Bader Ginsburg has. It's rare for a justice to acquire any sort of public personality; Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer, for instance, are both ciphers. Clarence Thomas is a mostly mute memento of his bruising confirmation hearings twenty-six years ago. Even Chief Justice John Roberts occupies an eerie middle ground between the Federalist Society's version of a Blade Runner replicant and the half-forgotten actor who played the heroine's dim boyfriend on some

  • Top of Barack

    In one of the few waggish moments of Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America (Custom House, $28), Jonathan Chait gently mocks presidential speechwriter Ben Rhodes for having an unrealistic idea of how much text can fit on a bumper sticker. Even so, look who's talking. Audacity itself is pretty darn windy, at least as rock-star souvenir merch goes.

    Timed to hit bookstores three days before Obama leaves office, Chait's book is the polemical equivalent of a T-shirt marketed to capitalize on some iconic performer's farewell tour—bragging, in this case, "I was right

  • Still Bill

    Few US presidents have done enough of any significance once they were out of office to rate books devoted to their post–White House careers. Nixon had Monica Crowley to play Boswell-that-ends-well, Jimmy Carter’s life and good works after 1981 will certainly deserve a fat tome or two, and I’d buy art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s (a guy can dream) George W. Bush: The Painter of Modern Life in an eyeblink. As usual, though, Bill Clinton is sui generis, comparable only to Teddy Roosevelt in his outsize presence and ongoing political impact sixteen years after his presidency. Hence Joe Conason’s nicely

  • Empire Burlesque

    Mark Twain was at the peak of his fame when a London club granted him an honorary membership. Told his only predecessors were two explorers and the Prince of Wales, he sized up his own inclusion nicely: “Well, it must make the Prince feel pretty fine.” The planet’s most celebrated American author until Ernest Hemingway came along—and guess whose laurels have proved more durable?—Samuel Clemens was never one to take a backseat to anybody. No wonder, then, that he seems much more himself as the undisputed star of Chasing the Last Laugh, Richard Zacks’s entertaining account of the international

  • The Wild Bunch

    The old saw that Los Angeles is a city without a past went into American culture’s discard pile some time ago. If the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Charles Manson, Proposition 13—the dawn of modern conservatism’s anti-tax mania—and Rodney King aren’t history, what is? That doesn’t stop a hazy impression from persisting elsewhere in the country that LA somehow sprang into being with the birth of the movie business. Yet the Pueblo de Los Angeles was founded in 1781, making it older than Chicago and Washington, DC.

    From the 1830s on, it was a flash point