That we are technologically impoverished when it comes to the aggression of nature in general – and the Mississippi River specifically – is a cautionary thematic in American life.  Our relative helplessness in the face of today’s cresting is a reminder of that, and – as far as this column is concerned – is also a call to explore some books and music that capture our fraught relationship to the river’s duality of prelapsarian calm and hellish ferocity.  With some works related to the region’s non-fluid history, and the future of climate changed, tossed in for good measure.



Reading the Headlines: Egypt

Our intrepid correspondent, Adam Hanft, enters the stacks and returns with some timely reading on Egypt past and present.


  • reading the headlines

A General Resigns

L’affaire McChrystal speaks to us in many ringing registers. On the political frequency, it was a career-ending move because it challenged our inviolate national conviction that the military must always be under civilian control. On the level of discourse, it’s part of a long and ironic tradition of private griping about one’s superiors. Both of those narratives are persistent themes in literature and cinema, and here at Reading the Headlines we’d like to direct your attention to this small militia of summer-reading relevancy.


  • reading the headlines

Al & Tipper Split

In the ooze and tangle of grand news like gushing oil and the precarious state of the European piggy bank, the story of Al and Tipper Gore’s separation has captured us with a surprising grip. What appears to be the end of a four-decade marriage, which to all public inspection appeared healthy—refusing to be rendered inert by depression or defeat—has elicited an extraordinary amount of attention and analysis.

But most of the commentary strikes me as merely amplified politics, speculative psychology, or shallow public reflection on private woes. Here at Reading The Headlines, we believe that cultural moments like this are a chance to crack the surface a bit, and discover (or re-discover) some terrific books that deal with the subject at hand from a variety of vantages.


  • reading the headlines


Lord Acton famously insisted that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Turning that aphorism inside out suggests that "Absolute corruption empowers absolutely."

And whom might be empowered, exactly? That's easy: novelists and historians, who for centuries have been stirred by the gaudy potential of all the sins that flesh is heir to.

Corruption is social malaria, always burbling within the immune system. Then at moments it explodes with the vengeance of all those suppressed genetics. And it's feeling like that's exactly what's ailing us right now, since it's more than the tabloids that brim with news of corruption in all its flowerings -- political, personal, moral, social. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite books on the subject, our First Annual Lord Acton edition of Reading the Headlines.



Post-Post-Colonial Literature in Jaipur

History, Marx said, returns as farce. And colonialism -- at least in Jaipur -- returns as festival.

The Jaipur Literary Festival kicked off this week; after just five years this annual event has become a must-attend celebration of the vibrant, noisy, rowdy literary landscape of India and South Asia.

Around 30,000 people will show up, along with 200 authors. It’s Davos meets Burning Man meets Sundance meets celebrity book-signings.

Jaipur, it can be argued, was made possible by the post-post-colonial literary movement. The first wave of writers who emerged after independence responded imaginatively to the British occupation; the current generation has been freed from that mechanical obligation and can view the past, present, and future afresh.

Both generations provide an immense dazzlement of reading riches, characterized by an earthy vibrancy and imaginative courage that exceeds the pallid contemporary output of the Brits, their ex-imperializers, and creates a post-Wildean aphorism: writing well is the best revenge.

In that spirit, we’ve put together a quick list of some stunning illuminations that will get you started on your own private festival. Read more...

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.