Rothman At-Large

Winter Storm Jonas: The E-Book Angle

January 24, 2016

First things, first—when Jonas-style blizzards hit us. The shovel. The heater. The pipes. The insulation. The windshield scraper. Whatever your priorities would be in the wintertime version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

In Northern Virginia, where I live, some feared it might take several days for the power to return if it went off—due to the high winds that could imperil workers repairing the lines. The worst probably won't happen. But if it did? What to do for entertainment? Of course you could talk to family or friends if the power failed during the night—not such a bad idea—but here's another one. E-books.

To prepare for Jonas, Carly and I charged up all our e-readers and phones. If the power had gone off during Snowmageddon II, I  finally would have gotten a chance to finish The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government on my Kindle Paperwhite. I had been reading it on my iPad and Nexus 6 cell phone, but with power a little iffy, backlit E Ink might be more fitting, especially at night. No flashlight needed—a limitation of paper books. And a muchlonger battery life.

So what e-books can we rely on to get through Winter Storm Jonas, from commercial e-book stores or the D.C. Public Library? Of course, The Dish is reachable anywhere in the world by way of the Web, and you’re still free to share your enthusiasms even if you’re in the tropics. But I’ll be especially curious what others in Snowmageddon country are reading. And don’t just give titles. Tell why you like such-and-such book. In the case of The Devil’s Chessboard, I’ll spell out my thoughts in a future review.

If you’re a bit of a contrarian and can’t get enough snow and ice, you can always revisit Jack London’s Call of the Wild (free Project Gutenberg text here, free LibriVox audiobook here). Or read Jules Verne’s An Antartic Mystery (text here, audio here). Speaking of the M word, a page from Cozy Mysteries Unlimited focuses on “books that revolve around snow storms.”Horror fan? Keep in mind the fearsome winter that set the mood for Mary Shelley when she was writing Frankenstein (text here,audio here). Or how about H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness? As for winter romances, check out a 2014 list from Bookish. For the ultimate winter novel, at least in spirit, consider Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (text here, audio here).

Or, yes, you could read up on climate change. Um, the phrase “global warming” just doesn’t say it all.

An earlier version of this post appeared on David Rothman's TeleRead site devoted to news and commentary on e-books and related topics.

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‘Gatsby: My Story’: A Book Review

April 9, 2015

Nick Carraway and your English lit professor got it all wrong. A madman’s gunshots did not kill the hero of The Great Gatsby, published 90 years ago on April 10, 1925.

The corpse inside the coffin was someone else, a clever ruse. With a “heavyweight team” of FBI men about to nab him, the real Jay Gatsby fled to Havana to grow still richer off illicit booze—closer to the source in the distribution chain. Gatsby got in on the casino action, too. If alive today, he would be thrilled by the bonanzas that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations might eventually send his way.

So—with the exception of the 21st-century diplomatic update—goes Gatsby: My Story. Michael Spindler’s unauthorized sequel appeared in 2013. Shame on the American literary establishment for overlooking it even if some unpleasant legal questions may arise. Meanwhile don’t worry about my spoiler. Plenty else will keep you reading.

Michael Spindler (Photo by: Michael Spindler

Did you know, for example, that Jay’s memories of Daisy were not as platonic as Carraway led us to believe? Daisy’s father the judge had given her a white Stutz roadster for her 18th birthday. In it she and Jay ventured to “out-of-the way dark places” and “rutted like alley cats and howled nearly as much.” Speaking of judges, Gatsby sees them as more buyable than admirable. In marrying Daisy—a judge‘s daughter from Alabama—Tom Buchanan was slumming it. But then again, in the wake of all the gossip following his “shamelessly public affair” with an Armour heiress, Tom’s choices in Chicago were limited.

Faring no better in Spindler’s sequel is Daisy, “a complete ninny mentally; it was only the brilliance of her smile and the smoothness of her thighs that distracted you from the idiocy of whatever she said.”

By contrast, as a revisionist, Spindler offers encomia for Arnold Rothstein, the real gangster after whom Fitzgerald modeled his Meyer Wolfsheim character. Oh, yes, Rothstein "The Brain" fixed the 1919 World Series—he was hardly crime-free. But Carraway just was not aware of the true origins of the "finest specimens of human molars" that the Wolfsheim character turned into cuff buttons. How could the specimens not be first-rate? They were from the gangster’s own mouth, courtesy his dentist. Spindler’s Wolfsheim/Rothstein just had a good sense of humor and this thing about keeping his body parts away from strangers.

I know. Even more than half a century after Fitzgerald’s death, certain people may hate Spindler’s book, including perhaps some in the Washington area, where Fitzgerald's daughter, Frances “Scottie” Lanahan Smith was a writer in Georgetown. I can understand. No, it isn’t just a matter of respect for a literary giant. Consider the more sympathetic and engaging of the characters he created. Even if Carraway is naive and far from the most reliable of narrators, he comes across as likable, almost a member of the family. My late mother was from the Midwest, not Carraway and Fitzgerald’s Minnesota, but a place close enough in mindset in some ways. For me, at least, The Great Gatsby remains a Great American Novel, easily able to weather Spindler’s revisionism.

That said, let’s not write off Spindler as a literacy parasite. More at—including some legal angles, which are as fascinating as the literary ones. Gatsby: My Story is not on sale at the U.S. site of Amazon, and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act just might be a reason.

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Rashad Young: The Right Civic Values for D.C.?

December 10, 2014

Rashad Young, hired at $245K and now paid $266,508 a year, is leaving as Alexandria’s city manager to become city administrator for D.C. In my hometown of 150,000, Mr. Young has been pulling down a bigger salary than that of Vice President Joe Biden, paid $230,700. Across the Potomac, Mr. Young’s compensation almost surely will be higher in the new job. Washington’s current administrator, Allen Y. Lew, was making $295K as of 2011.

I wish Mr. Young the best of luck helping Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser run the D.C. government, but I can’t resist raising the salary issue, and I fervently hope that the Washington media will follow up with questions for her.

The story in this case is about civic values. Annualized, the Alexandria city government’s total payments to Mr. Young with benefits and full car allowance included are around $350,000---just a little shy of the pitiful amount that Alexandria spends on books and other library content, far below the national average per capita. This issue extends beyond Alexandria. If the Washington Post or New York Times can do a national story on the inflated salaries of so many top city administrators in the context of municipal needs, such as those of K-12 kids and other library patrons, then so much the better. Based on Mr. Young’s priorities in Alexandria, I do not think his hiring in Washington is a very auspicious sign for D.C.

Across the country, while ordinary taxpayers scramble to pay everyday bill and localities cut back on even essential services, mayors and city councils have splurged on managers as if they were recruiting NBA players. Just in California, as of 2010, 16 managers were raking in more than $300,000 each. Their salaries, like Mr. Young’s, didn’t just surpass Mr. Biden’s. They also dwarfed those of U.S. senators and of even the best-paid members of the Senior Executive Service at the federal level. Alas, too many ‘crats in America’s local governments are 5’11” also-dribbles with Kobe Bryant-sized financial aspirations.

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