Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Dispatches from the Edge

I haven't discussed a book on this blog for ages. This doesn't mean that I haven't been reading but my other posts have taken precedence. However, this book came to me recently, in the Book Circulation Group. Yesterday I picked it up and this morning I finished it.

For those of you who don't know, Anderson Cooper is a news correspondent who has a nightly news show on CNN, Anderson Cooper 360 degrees. Now I don't watch this program or any of the other regular CNN prime time news programs, like Nancy Grace or Larry King Live. I'm not a news junkie, although I like to think I know what's going on in the world and we subscribe to BBC World's 24 hour TV news service. For many years we didn't have TV, so the news to me was a more detached experience, either via the radio or the print media. I find it quite hard to watch the US style of news, which tries to sensationalize everything, to shock you, upset you, anger you, horrify you.

I'll never forget the summer of 1967. We went to Ottawa so my husband could work in the laboratory of Gerhard Herzberg, a Nobel prize winning scientist. He worked long hours and I had two young children, 4 years and six months. The house we rented had a TV and I spent many evenings alone watching it. That summer was the year of the race riots in the US and every news program showed footage of that and the war in Vietnam. I swore I would never watch the news on TV, if we ever got a TV. Well of course we eventually did, but on the whole I don't watch the regular news broadcasts because they tend to send my blood pressure soaring. I still do the radio and print media news thing, but now the internet fills in a lot of blanks. Yes, if something big is happening, I'll watch it on TV. The immediacy of it all is remarkable and CNN usually supplies the news in that situation very well.

But back to the book. Anderson Cooper subtitled his book A Memoir of War, Disasters and Survival. In it he describes some of his experiences as an overseas correspondent interspersed with some autobiographical stories of his life and family. His mother is Gloria Vanderbilt, who as a child was the subject of a bitter trial for custody between her mother and her aunt, with the aunt winning. His father, Wyatt Cooper was Gloria's fourth husband and died while undergoing heart surgery when Anderson was ten. His older brother Carter jumped from his window in their apartment before his mother's horrified eyes when he was 23 and Anderson was 21.

Anderson chose to try to forget the unresolved issues in his life by running around the world looking to report on the world's trouble spots. He does speak movingly of some of these experiences, in Africa, Niger, Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, then in Sri Lanka after the horrific tsunami in 2004. One cannot remain unaffected by the stories he tells but more than half the book tells of his time in Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not only does he recount the things he saw there but he roundly condemns the slow response by everyone, especially the Federal Government, to help the people affected by the destruction meted out by Katrina and the horrors they endured in the aftermath. He also documents the mismanagement of the response and the lack of planning and lack of organization that was evident everywhere he looked.

I found this a very moving book, not at all easy to read on the one hand, but so mesmerizing that once I picked it up, it was impossible to put down. So many ordinary people doing heroic things are remembered in this book and so many lives wasted unnecessarily. He speaks admiringly of Médecins sans Frontières who toil heroically in Africa and of ordinary policemen in Louisiana who worked round the clock in New Orleans, sleeping in their cars, because their homes were gone too.

He leaves Louisana after a month, reluctantly, forever affected by what he has seen. He is forced to take some time off and goes to Mexico where he begins to write this book and he tells us how he came to write it:

All this came about for me in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and I started writing about a week after. In many ways, I'd been sort of writing it in my head for the last 15 years. But there was something about this sort of combination of the present that I was seeing, this horror and this tragedy, and the bravery and the compassion of the people I was meeting. I was surrounded by all these moments from my past. My father had lived in New Orleans. My father had grown up in Mississippi. I had been there with him as a child and he had died when I was very young. It was sort of this joining the past and present and I just started writing, and it sort of flowed from there.

Tonight I turned on Anderson Cooper 360 degrees and watched for a while. Yes he's a talking head, skilfully questioning this person or that about the latest news, which today is the scandalous commuting of Libby's sentence by President Bush. But now, having read this book, I see him as so much more. From his writing, he comes across as a thoughtful caring man, trying his best to make the public see what horrors he has seen, so that we can try to prevent them happening again or dealing with them effectively if we can't.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Now that is the kind of book that would really interest me. He sounds a very balanced, rounded character in spite of all that has happened to him and all he has experienced. Like you, I prefer to read news / hear it on the radio and, although I watch Sky, I find it very irritating when they sensationalise everything and report "news" they have no evidence of. Yet their political editor, Alan Boulton, is a man worth listening to and I read his blog on the Sky news site. I have BBC World but get fed-up with the number of environmental programmes on it. I read the British press online and find the BBC news site better than watching BBC World. I'm just off to watch the Alan Johnston coverage now. I've added the Anderson book to my wish list. auguri, jmb.

james higham said...

...Anderson chose to try to forget the unresolved issues in his life by running around the world looking to report on the world's trouble spots...

Not unlike me but not reporting.

I've heard reservations about this guy but they're so nebulous [I can't remember what was said actually] that I'd best not comment.

Rositta said...

You know, I much preferred Aaron Brown on the nightly CNN news. AC I cant quite like. I don't watch him often, I find him kind of smarmy (is that a word), he has an incredible hate-on for all things Canadian and trashes us whenever he can. Last night's program talked about us being a "haven for terrorists" and having porous borders. Maybe if he resolves his own issues he might be a better "talking head"...ciao

Ian Lidster said...

I only became aware of Cooper (outside of the gossipy tidbit about him being Gloria Vanderbilt's son) during Katrina, and was impressed with his offerings.
However, as an aging ink-stained wretch, I still get the bulk of my news from the papers.

Helge Mikkelsen said...

Very interesting readihg about news from USA TV, some years ago I visited USA and some rainy evenings I watch the news on TV, and I did not like it at all. Most news was of the sensasional kind, so I quite agree with you, when I can I see BBC news but most of all Im glad I'm living in Norway and see the Norwegian news.

Anyhow I like the stuff you are writing about Japan, I'm hoping you will write more from that facinating country.

Have a nice summer

jmb said...

I was most impressed by this man from what he wrote in his book.
We like to have BBC world because it gives a balance to the news we are exposed to here which is totally American in bias. That's because more than half our channels are US channels. The wonders of cable.

jmb said...

Hi James,

Well it sounds as if you have settled for a good while at least. How long have you been there?
I've heard he is arrogant, smug, even gay would you believe, as if anyone cared anymore.
But I liked the man that I found in this book and that's what I'm going to judge him by.

jmb said...

Hi Rositta

I don't watch CNN usually, as I said. Too bad that he hates Canada and Canadians. But that said, I found him a very compassionate caring man from this book and that's what is important to me for this review.

jmb said...

Hi Ian,

It seems he was profoundly affected by Katrina, especially the way the aftermath was so mishandled and continues to be mishandled, even almost two years later.
Well if you want more than superficial you have to rely on the print media, don't you? TV is good for the 90 second sound byte, but that's basically it. We all seem to have the attention span of a gnat these days and TV is to blame for that too.

jmb said...

Hi Helge,
I wonder if it is only in the USA that this sensationalism exists regarding the news. Of course Canada is the same for all intents and purposes.
There is more coming about Japan, but I just had to post this book review while it was fresh in my mind.
Thanks for coming by, I hop over to see your postcards every now and again.

Voyager said...

I liked your last recommended book, From Baghdad With Love, so I'll try this one too.

jmb said...

Hi voyager,
I'm glad you liked From Baghdad with Love. It went the long way around but a happy ending was achieved.

Not so much with Dispatches from the Edge. But still a book I would recommend reading.

Lee said...

That sounds like a very interesting book, jmb. I'm reading a fairly lightweight but interest autobiography by Esther Williams at the moment. I picked it up at the local "Op Shop" for about a $1.00AUD and I'm enjoying is so far.

I agree with you about the can be very frustrating and anger-making oft times. I go through times I refuse to watch it, too. But as I have the radio going in the background all day and I read on-line news, I'm constantly up-to-date with what's going on, anyway.

jmb said...

Hi Lee,
I liked the book a lot, found it very interesting.
I thought maybe the TV news was better in Australia. Not so sensational, but I guess I was wrong.

leslie said...

I had no idea he's so anti-Canada and Canadians. I'm shocked!

ipanema said...

Thanks for this review. Sounds interesting indeed. I am more of a BBC fan. :)

Ellee said...

Welshcakes, I should get round to reading Alan Boulton too.
jmb is a very discerning reader and has certainly made me want to read this book.

Sienna said...

Aren't people interesting and fascinating!

I got researching him and trailled off a million miles away and forgot to thankyou!

I like knowing the person behind the face...and I am interested in people, we get Sky News and CNN, and all the others, puts a new perspective on him....thanks JMB


lady macleod said...

What a fabulous review. Mr. Cooper would be pleased indeed I think. What tells me this is a good read is that you picked it up and boom, you finished it.

He has certainly not lived a live of beige.

I agree with you about the U.S. news; when last at Q's grandparents (which is my one place to watch television) I watched the Fox news. OHmygoodness! I thought it was some take off, a satire of sorts, but nooo they were serious. Shocking!

I really enjoyed your review.

Janice Thomson said...

I too enjoyed your review Jmb. Myself I like Cooper and quite often watch his Special Reports like 'Keeping Them Honest'. I'm certain he has his faults but so do I so I'll stop right there.

jmb said...

Well Leslie, so Rositta says. I have never watched him before the other evening.

jmb said...

Hi ipanema,
Me too, a BBC fan that is. But I liked the book so maybe I should check him out every now and again.

jmb said...

Hi Ellee,
I must check out Alan Boulton too. I did like the book a lot.

jmb said...

Hi Sienna,

People are indeed fascinating. Do you see him in Australia too? He's cute too but there's a rumour that he's gay. I liked the fact that he stumbled around a bit in the interview I saw and it made him seem human.

jmb said...

Hello Lady M,
Yes, I couldn't put it down, although I wondered if I would find it a bit too depressing before I started.
I think the US news style is terrible.

jmb said...

Hi Janice,
I watched "Keeping them Honest" last night for a bit. It certainly made me angry and I'm not even American.
I'm sure he has his faults but he showed his heart in this book and so I could forgive him a lot for that.