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In ‘A Full Life,’ Jimmy Carter At 90 Remains A Wise Truth Teller

By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A Full Life: Reflections at 90 by Jimmy Carter; Simon & Schuster (272 pages, $28)
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Jimmy Carter let me down. Not with his book A Full Life: Reflections at 90 — a warm and detailed memoir of his youth followed by a clear-eyed assessment of the issues he tackled as president and afterward — but with his response to the question “Does the arc of history bend toward justice?”

“I’m not sure about that,” said Carter, who has spent the last 35 years advocating for peace. “I think we reached the high point, in the practical aspects of justice for most people on earth, when we passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After World War II, about 1948, every country committed themselves to permanent peace with the establishment of the United Nations and then the Universal Human Rights declaration. I think we’ve gone downhill in many ways since that time.”

I was hoping for some kind of hopeful reassurance. But instead he pointed out that “violence and destruction and hatred and animosity and discrimination seem to me to be becoming more acceptable in some parts of the world.”

This refusal to sugarcoat matters is quintessential Carter; he has maintained all the acuity and principle of his youth while accruing the wisdom of his 90 years.

One challenge of Carter’s presidency was that he spoke the truth, even though during his years in the White House (1976-80), the truth was often bad news. He faced an energy crisis, a capsizing economy, opposition from Congress, and the revolution in Iran than led to American hostages being held captive 444 days.

Carter revisits some of those challenges in the book, in chapters titled “Issues Mostly Resolved” and “Problems Still Pending.” Resolved issues include swift and cogent sections on Rhodesia, the B-1 bomber, “Saving New York City and Chrysler,” and the Cold War — he doesn’t take credit for its end, but it gives him a chance to talk about his landmark SALT II Treaty. Among “Problems Still Pending” are drugs, special interests, the threat of nuclear war and intelligence agencies. He doesn’t let Ronald Reagan, George H.W. or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton off completely, but when they appear, his language about them is carefully neutral.

“I try not to be critical of others who’ve done differently from me,” Carter says by phone, “but in a positive way spell out the things that might be done more effectively, more honestly, more beneficially to our own people and people in the rest of the world.”

Historian Julian E. Zelizer, professor at Princeton University and author of the 2010 biography Jimmy Carter, is convinced that presidents’ memoirs rarely do much to change how people remember them. “I don’t think all of a sudden people will think the late ’70s were better than they thought,” he says. Yet he believes Carter is working to change perceptions. “I think there’s a part of Jimmy Carter that feels he wasn’t treated well and people didn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish.”

Carter has clarified his positions before, in more than two dozen books that include memoirs of his presidency, the controversial 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and, most recently, 2014’s A Call to Action about the rights of women. In A Full Life, in addition to providing a sweeping overview of a broad range of issues and frequent credit to his wife Rosalynn, he remembers his pre-political past, including surprisingly detailed stories about tilling a field with a mule at the family farm in Plains, Ga., and an incident when, as a sailor, he was swept off the deck of a submarine near South Korea and almost carried off to sea.

At the heart of the book is a message that Carter has carried through his political life: “My hope is that our leaders will capitalize on our country’s most admirable qualities,” he writes. His version of those qualities, deeply informed by his Christian faith, seems far from our current foreign policy. “We need to be a Superpower as a champion of peace, not war; we need to be a Superpower in being a champion of basic human rights, although we’re now violating a good many of the basic principles of human rights,” he says. “We need to be the most generous country in the world; the most dedicated to the essence of democracy and freedom.”

When pressed, the avowed truth teller admits that we have a long way to go. “Most people on earth look on our country as the number one proponent of war. Since the Second World we’ve invaded or bombed about 30 nations in the world…. But I think that we should be a champion of peace, and a champion of human rights, and a champion of democracy, and a champion of freedom, a champion of generosity, a champion of environmental quality.”

Carter added, “Those things won’t cost us anything. They will add the admiration, and support, and I think ultimately the economic benefit to our country.”

In many ways, the American public has caught up with the issues Carter championed during his presidency. Zelizer says Carter “took a risk by dealing with human rights and energy in 1979 and paid a political price for it.”

Yet losing the presidency to Reagan led to Carter’s subsequent life as an international statesman, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Now he’s one of the Elders, a group of independent leaders founded by Nelson Mandela that negotiates at the highest levels on issues of peace, development and the environment. “Nelson Mandela was a very close friend of mine….” Carter says. “That’s one of the benefits of the life that I have, that is, access to almost anyone in the world with whom I want to meet and discuss issues.”

In June and July, Carter has undertaken a coast-to-coast book tour with a schedule ambitious for someone half his age. “When I write a book, it gives me a unique chance to speak out around the nation,” he says.

Unlike others of his stature, he doesn’t go on the lecture circuit. “Going on book tour is the best chance I get to express my views to a pretty wide audience.”

In A Full Life, Carter puts the long arc of his story together the way he sees it. The book includes his accomplishments as a negotiator and peacemaker in the humblest way _ as a man who was at work on a larger project, something he continues to be. A primer for the generations who don’t know his work and a personal retelling for those who do, A Full Life may herald the reappraisal he deserves.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Tumblr A Place For Readers And Favorite Authors To Connect

By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

To express her love to Judy Blume, a 1970s tween would have had to write a letter. These days, a young reader enchanted by YA books — by, say, author Rainbow Rowell — can make nail art that matches a book cover and share it on Tumblr, where the author herself might see and share it with her followers.

“When someone who lives in Kansas and has [never met] an author in person has the author re-blog something they made, they freak out,” says Rachel Fershleiser, who means “freak out” in the nicest way. An infectious book booster, Fershleiser manages Tumblr’s literary communities by reaching out to readers, librarians, and booksellers, meeting with publishers, setting up contests and networking with authors and teaching them how to use Tumblr.

The communal blogging platform, which allows anyone 13 and older to quickly set up a site of his or her own, has created an essential online literary ecosystem. Yahoo acquired the company for $1.1 billion in 2013 and has left its quirky user environment, made up of more than 231 million blogs, largely undisturbed.

“Tumblr’s very passion-focused. People think of us as a place for fans,” says Fershleiser. “This fan culture is being incredibly excited about the thing you love and wanting to make more and more of it.”

Hence, the pink and gray fingernails painted with a telephone receiver and coiled cord, inspired by the cover of Rowell’s 2014 novel, “Landline.” Similarly, a cornucopia of books has inspired embroidery, jewelry, drawings, and paintings. And playlists. People cook recipes found in and inspired by books. There’s an entire Tumblr blog, Proof Reading (proofreadingbooks.tumblr.com), dedicated to matching books with appropriate cocktails.

Tumblr is particularly well-suited for sharing images, videos, and GIFs, which might make it seem like an odd fit for wordy, bookish types. Yet there’s something in its alchemy — tools that allow anyone to follow anyone else’s blog, the ability to take anyone’s post and reblog it yourself with a single click — that makes it a primary online meeting place for certain readers.

“There’s a huge, huge YA book community,” Fershleiser says, and hundreds of thousands of them are following authors who are on Tumblr, including Rowell, Maureen Johnson, and John Green.

Green attributes part of the success of his book “The Fault in Our Stars” (and its film adaptation) to the avid fans on Tumblr.

“My readers are evangelists,” he blogged on the site last year. “If you scroll through the ‘Looking for Alaska’ or TFiOS tags on Tumblr, you see a lot of people screaming at their friends to read my books, and making art about the books, and animating quotations from them, and so on. I am just really lucky in this respect.”

Those people aren’t just teens.

“There are a lot of booksellers and librarians and women in our 30s who like to read that stuff,” Fershleiser says proudly.

Other significant communities on Tumblr focus on science fiction, comic books, small independent presses, and literary fiction. But YA is the center of Fershleiser’s book world. She launched Tumblr’s official book club in 2013 and gears its selections to that fan base, including the just-announced sixth book, “All the Rage” by Courtney Summers.

“I’ve always said I want to be the Oprah of the Internet. Being able to choose an amazing book and bring together a whole lot of people around it is really cool,” Fershleiser says. “The only requirements are that the author is in the Tumblr community, that there’s a lot to talk about, and that the book will be appealing to teens and adults.”

Because of the interface, the discussion remains extremely upbeat. Tumblr’s reposting function allows the originator to see all later uses of his or her post.

“It’s probably a less negative place than other social sites,” Fershleiser says. “When I want to respond to something, I reblog it onto my blog, so I’m not going to do that to call someone a ‘buttface.'”

That collegial atmosphere has made Tumblr a place where bookish young women have come to feel welcome to express themselves; it’s become a haven for enthusiasm and girlish cheer.

As far as books are concerned, it’s not much of a critical discourse — there are other places for that: newspapers, print journals, websites like the Los Angeles Review of Books. But in those places, you can’t celebrate your favorite novel by designing an outfit for its main character or creating a playlist — unlike on Tumblr, where if the author sees what you’ve done, so much the better.

“For people who don’t live in New York and go to publishing parties, or get to come to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and meet writers,” Fershleiser says, “it’s a really interesting opportunity to connect.”

Photo: Scott Beale via Laughing Squid

The Literary Life (And Death) Of Susan Berman, Alleged Robert Durst Victim

By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Time (TNS)

When she was killed 15 years ago, Susan Berman was a 55-year-old writer struggling to stay relevant. Now her work is suddenly at a premium. Paperback editions of her memoir Easy Street — which could be gotten for $10 or less Monday morning — are now priced at $50 and up at the online used bookstore AbeBooks.

Berman has gone from forgotten author to high-profile victim. On Monday, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Robert Durst, subject of the just-concluded HBO documentary The Jinx with Berman’s murder. He is in custody in New Orleans.

The Jinx told the life story of real estate scion Durst and of the deaths and disappearance of people close to him, with his cooperation. It concluded Sunday night with Durst saying, on tape but off screen, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

He appeared to be alluding to others covered in the documentary: His wife, who went missing in New York in 1972; Morris Black, his Texas neighbor whom he admitted to dismembering but whose murder he was acquitted of; and Susan Berman, who was found on Christmas Eve 2000 in her rented Benedict Canyon home, dead of a gunshot to the back of the head a day or two before.

Berman and Durst had been friends ever since meeting at UCLA in the 1960s. When his wife disappeared, Berman helped Durst wrangle calls from the media. When Berman was married at the Hotel Bel-Air in 1984, Durst gave her away. When Berman was broke, she turned to Durst, who loaned her $50,000.

Like many writers, Berman had up years and down years — although throwing a wedding in Bel Air is more up than most. Born in 1945, she was raised in Las Vegas by a father who she thought was a chic hotelier. She didn’t realize it then, but he was a gangster who’d kept company with Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky, and was running the Flamingo and Riviera hotels for the mob. She was about 12 when he died of a heart attack; when her mentally unstable mother committed suicide a year later, Berman was orphaned.

Despite being largely on her own, she made it to UCLA and Berkeley and began carving out a respectable career as a journalist. In the 1970s, she worked for the San Francisco Examiner and then moved to the East Coast and found a place at New York Magazine. One of her more enduring stories, “Why I Can’t Get Laid in San Francisco,” seems to both elicit and resist sympathy.

She hit her stride with Easy Street, her 1981 memoir about growing up in Las Vegas at the height of its glamour. The book had two subtitles — “The True Story of A Mob Family” in hardcover and “The True Story of A Gangster’s Daughter” in paperback — that explained what it was all about.

Because Berman grew up ignorant of her father’s mob ties, the book was a research project as well as memoir. It was filled partly with what she learned about him from his FBI files (the time in Sing Sing, the reputation as a heavy) and partly with the memories of having Liberace sing at her birthday and learning to play gin at age 4 with men she knew as uncles, but were in fact bodyguards.

“Susan Berman grew up in an emotional fog about her parents, her origins,” Carolyn See wrote in her L.A. Times review of the book. “She had been taught — somehow — to be both proud and ashamed of what she came from…. The story here, then, is not about crime but about a pitiably defenseless girl…who sets out to make sense of emotional disaster, to gain control over an enormous legacy of doom.”

The book wasn’t perfect: Kirkus Reviews found the combination of halcyon memories and frightening mafia tales awkward. See thought the writing was just too clunky in places. But in others, it charmed.

“As a first-generation Las Vegan I had known only the life he had chosen to give me,” Berman wrote. “The background sounds of my childhood were slot machines crunching, dice clicking, the songs of Sophie Tucker and the Andrews Sisters, and the carping of an ever-present hotel page…. To this day the desert air invigorates and exhilarates me like nothing else and hotel coffeeshops and floor shows give me a tranquilizing sense of security.”

The book was a success. From hardcover it went to paperback, and was optioned for $350,000. In 1983, Berman moved to L.A. to be closer to the business that seemed ready to embrace her.

As she told it, she was queuing up to register a script at the Writers Guild when she met the man who would become her husband. Mister (as he called himself) Margulies was 25; she was 38. She footed the bill for a lavish ceremony for hundreds of guests at the Hotel Bel-Air; Robert Durst gave her away.

She had all the trappings of success, but it didn’t last. Margulies was using heroin and in less than a year, the marriage was over. At 27, he died of an overdose. Next she had a long-term relationship with Paul Kaufman, becoming the de facto mother to his two children, but their finances and relationship collapsed in 1992.

Writers can spend an awful lot of time in Hollywood working on projects that never come to fruition. Kaufman and Berman had a Broadway musical in the works that never came together. There never was an Easy Street movie.

On shaky financial footing, Berman wrote a couple of pulpy novels. Avon published Fly Away Home in 1996 and Spiderweb in 1997; both tell the story of women who’ve lost someone close to them (a sister, a mother who may not have committed suicide) who try to find them in Los Angeles. They were not well-noticed; neither book was reviewed by the L.A. Times.

It was clear what people wanted from Berman: More mob stories. Despite the fact that her father had died in 1957, taking his mob ties with him, Berman continued to mine the gangster vein.

In 1996, she was a writer and co-producer of an A&E documentary that aired in two two-hour segments, “Las Vegas: Gamble in the Desert” and “Las Vegas: House of Cards.” Berman authored a companion book to the series, Lady Las Vegas: The Inside Story Behind the Neon Oasis, published that same year.

By 2000, Berman’s personal life was fraught with phobias (she didn’t like going above certain floors in buildings and over bridges) and anxieties. She had health fears and complained of allergies and worried over her dogs. Some relationships were tightly bonded, while with others she had drastic fallings-out. She engaged in an ongoing tussle with her Benedict Canyon landlord over, depending on who you asked, needed repairs or unpaid rent, which was finally resolved not long before Berman was killed.

Berman’s fatal mistake appears to have been agreeing to speak to Westchester County Dist. Atty. Jeanine Pirro. In 2000, Pirro had opened an investigation into the disappearance of Kathie Durst nearly two decades before. Kathie was married to Robert Durst, and when she went missing, Berman helped Durst field inquiries that came his way. According to New York Magazine, she even told one friend she’d provided his alibi.

The style of Berman’s murder — a single shot to the back of the head — made it easy to speculate that it was a long-delayed mafia payback. But most of the players she’d known were long gone, and she’d written about them so glowingly — Easy Street was not much cause for a vendetta.

It was, instead, a kind of celebration. Easy Street was Berman’s story, the one she revisited and reshaped and told again and again. As interest grows and it becomes increasingly inaccessible — hardcover copies are $75-$300 — perhaps someone will decide to keep her work alive in an e-book.

Photo: Author Susan Berman and Robert Durst, who has been charged with her murder. (HBO)

Latest Issue Of French Newspaper Spotlighted Author Accused Of Inciting Islamophobia

By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by gunmen Wednesday, leaving a dozen people dead, including the editor in chief and well-known cartoonists. Authorities said the gunmen shouted “God is great” in Arabic during the assault.

The magazine has been the center of controversy before, notably for running satirical cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed.

The cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo features another figure well-known to French readers: Michel Houellebecq. The novelist, a provocateur and major prize-winner, has a new book out in France that has been accused of inciting Islamophobia.

Soumission is a novel set in France in the 2022, when, to counter the far right Le Pen, French voters elect a moderate Muslim president. Then the country quickly shifts into a Muslim-like state. In it, “women abandon Western dress and leave work, non-Muslim teachers are forced out of their jobs and polygamy is reinstated,” according to the Telegraph.

Houllebecq spoke to The Paris Review about the book in an interview published Monday. “Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics,” he admits.

“Like imagining the prospect of Islam taking over the country?” the interviewer, Sylvain Bourmeau, asks.

Houllebecq replies, “Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.”

Later the author continued, “Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace…. only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.”

The interviewer, who had been asking about racism in his work, pressed Houellebecq to address those accusations. “When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago,” he said, “the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait. This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of ‘racism’ by inventing the crime of Islamophobia.”

A police guard has been installed at Houellebecq’s French publisher Flammarion. A U.S. publication date for Soumission — “Submission” in English — has not been announced.

Photo: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Heavily armed gunmen shouting Islamist slogans stormed a Paris satirical newspaper office on January 7 and shot dead at least 12 people in the deadliest attack in France in four decades. Police launched a massive manhunt for the masked attackers who reportedly hijacked a car and sped off, running over a pedestrian and shooting at officers. (Michael Bunel/NurPhoto/Zuma Press)