The Mail

Reviewing recent issues of Oklahoma Today, Cometbus, Playboy, and more

People send us their newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, we review them.

Oklahoma Today, Jan/Feb 2009

Oklahoma Today says it’s been “The Magazine of Oklahoma Since 1956.” And, according to the reader letters in its Jan/Feb 2009 issue, it’s done a pretty good job. “Thanks for putting out such a proud-of-our-state publication.” “You performed beautifully.” To the editor-in-chief: “You’re an amazing woman.” “I love Oklahoma Today.”

The pages that follow don’t entirely live up to the high praise—but then again, it’s pretty high praise. They’re mostly short, cute, and Okie-centric, with an anthropological tinge that I assume I detect because I’m not an Okie myself. There’s a story about the Great Backyard Bird Count, which apparently has detected a shift in the state’s dove population—Oklahoma used to be mourning dove territory, but nowadays there’s been a dramatic increase in Eurasian collared, white-winged, and Inca doves. There’s an article about a boy and his dog—”Travis and Presley Brorsen”—who won the canine reality show competition Greatest American Dog. (In case dogs aren’t your thing, there’s a sidebar with other Oklahoma reality stars, including David Cook, who won season 7 of American Idol.)

Turn the page and you get a new-kid-on-the-block story—a Q&A with the grinning twenty-year-old Republican mayor of Muskogee, elected last May with 70 percent of the vote. (On his freetime activities: “I play Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Halo 3, and Kingdom Hearts video games.” His favorite moment of the RNC: “Meeting Rudy Giuliani.”)

The cover story tells the tale of Clayton I. Bennett, the chairman of the NBA’s newest franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the magazine’s Oklahoman of the Year. Bennett, responsible for relocating the team from Seattle (then-Sonics), is introduced as a “home-grown thunder god,” conjuring the image of Zeus parking himself at the sidelines in the Ford Center.

The best thing about the magazine is undoubtedly its last page quiz feature, “Where Are You?”, which asks readers to identify a different local historic building each issue. The previous issue’s answer? “The National Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague.” -Jane Kim

Playboy, February 2009

Let’s leave the question of whether pornography exploits women for another day. Playboy is a magazine with comparatively tame pictures of naked ladies, and plenty of smart writing to accompany them. Yes, you can read the magazine for the articles. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years.

For those who wail about the demise of long-form non-fiction, Playboy does its best to support the genre on a monthly basis. This month’s issue features a piece, from The Nation’s Christian Parenti, about the growth of the drug trade in Guinea-Bissau. Like the situation in Mexico, journalists who cover trafficking are in danger:

In Bissau’s weekly newspapers and on one of its community radio stations, a few local journalists have had the guts to report on the government’s links to drug traffickers. But the price has been high. One writer, Allen Yero Emballo, had his home raided by the military. He was beaten, and his papers were seized. As the soldiers departed they told him, ‘Next time we’ll leave the papers and just take your head.’ Emballo soon decamped for France.

Playboy may be a men’s magazine, but there’s plenty to draw readers of both genders. This issue offers two Q&As, the first with House actor Hugh Laurie, and the second with Lost star Josh Holloway. There’s a requisite car article highlighting the best cars of 2009, but it’s pretty progressive—the compact, fuel-efficient Mini Cooper was chosen as the best family car.

In CJR’s last issue, author Gary Andrew Poole urged sports writers to recapture the relevance of their genre. Playboy’s, Steve Salerno delivers with a captivating look at the life and times of NFL officials. The piece is full of personality and on-the-ground action, and it’s fun to read, even for a non-football fan. Called “zebras,” professional football referees offer a fascinating perspective on the game:

With The Play developing between, Rose and Cheek search for their keys. So intent is Rose on wideout Plaxico Burress that he’s the only crew member unaware of the world of hurt Manning is in. Meanwhile, Cheek picks up Toomer, who just blew by Slaughter, in the process he spots Harrison closing on Tyree.

Suddenly Cheek sees Tyree jump. Man, he went up for that ball! Though Harrison is all over him, the play looks clean. Rose sees it too: The ball appears to be pasted cartoonishly to Tyree’s helmet. Rose thinks, If he hits the turf, I’m gonna say ‘Incomplete! Incomplete

One complaint is that many of the articles jump to the back of the book, which both interrupts the flow, and requires the reader to flip past the nude pages in the middle to pick up a story. Online, most of the magazine’s content sits behind a pay wall, so the hard copy is the best way to enjoy it. Don’t be bashful. Good journalism awaits. -Katia Bachko

Cometbus, Issue #51: The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah

There is a serious book to be written about the history of independent bookstores in Berkeley, California. It would discuss the rise of the corporate bookstore, real estate manipulations, the declining population of Berkeley in the 1970s, and the free speech movement. “The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah”, a history of the bookstores on Berkeley, California’s Telegraph Avenue, is not that kind of history.

“Electric Menorah” is the latest installment of Cometbus, a punk ‘zine published on and off since 1983 by the writer and musician Aaron Elliott. Conducting over forty interviews with East Bay businessmen, burnouts, and scenesters, Elliott has compiled a full, though largely personal, history of the Berkeley independent bookstore.

The conventional independent bookstore is, of course, run by a middle-aged woman with a B.A. from Mt. Holyoke and a husband who is a senior executive at a major company. The owner is pleasant and loves books, though her tastes may range toward the conservative: classic literature, coffee table books about English manor houses, etc.

As Elliott demonstrates, this was not the story of the Berkeley bookstore. With the notable exception of something like Mrs. Dalloway’s, owned by an elegant daughter-in-law of McGeorge Bundy, Berkeley bookstores were owned by hard-nosed types. In 1963, Moe Moskowitz and Bill Cartwright opened the first of these bookstores, Rambam, on Telegraph Avenue. The pair soon split up. Cartwright opened Shakespeare and Co., and Moe, a cigar-smoking millionaire and former anarchist, opened Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. The two men, naturally, hated one another and their businesses were rivals.

Cometbus #51 spins out from there, telling the story of a few heavily competitive stores run by several highly eccentric men. It is a compelling story, particularly in the way that the author manages to place this narrow retail history in the broader context of the 1970s. Apparently Bob Baldock, who ran Moe’s Books for Moskowitz, was involved in the Cuban revolution as a young man, and fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra Mountains. Yes, that actually happened. And in between robbing a bank and setting pipe bombs in Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars, Kathy Soliah, a key figure in the Symbionese Liberation Army, worked at the Campus Textbook Exchange on Bancroft.

“Electric Menorah” is a fascinating resource for anyone interested in history of the Bay Area, but it helps a lot to be familiar with Berkeley (and even then, it’s hard to follow without the benefit of Google and a map). “Electric Menorah” also does a lot of name dropping. Oddly, this doesn’t come across as pretentious so much as just confusing, because none of the largely forgotten bookstore owners’ names are familiar. Though the issue is less than 100 pages long, a diligent reader should be prepared to keep a running list of the people mentioned.

Still, the issue is entertaining and well structured, and Elliott is a likable narrator, low-key yet opinionated, determined to tell this story his way, no matter whom he might offend. When he describes Salman Rushdie’s visit to one Berkeley bookstore, Elliott says:

Ugh. Hear him speak and you’ll find out why he got what he deserved. The guy’s a total ass.

This quotation is not defended and is maybe not terribly useful, but this unprofessionalism does not undermine the issue. “Electric Menorah” is a personal history. If you think the winner of the Booker Prize and the author of The Satanic Verses is an ass, go ahead and say it; it’s your damn magazine. This is, perhaps, the entire point. Elliott not only wrote the entire issue of Cometbus, he apparently printed it, too, using a photocopier—as he has done for twenty-five years. The author’s irregular language is a specific choice. He is embracing unprofessionalism, as did the bookstores he loves (for all their flaws) on Telegraph Avenue . -Daniel Luzer

News Photographer, January 2009

Well, the photos are good. When a magazine is called News Photographer (and when that title doubles as its target reader demographic), they’d better be. The images that anchor News Photographer—of Barack Obama on the stump; of a bed-ridden mother in Malawi; of children crowded in a Philippine jail; of a California wildfire—are the point of the publication. And they’re peppered throughout News Photographer’s sixty-one pages, in full-page spreads and smaller versions, glossy and varied, occasionally jarring, almost always riveting.

Most magazines treat their art as an afterthought to their text—and given News Photographer’s (forgive the pun, but) focus, it could be excused for committing the reverse transgression: subverting its words to its images. It doesn’t, though. Here’s Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, writing a thoughtful essay about the paper’s dilemma about whether to publish a photo of the corpse of a dog that had been hit by a car. Here’s an exploration of the convergence of video and still photography. Here’s an analysis of the rewards and perils of photo freelancing for NGOs.

They’re compelling stories. They may not be written in lyrical prose, but what the articles here may lack in style, they make up for in substance.

Like most magazines, News Photographer features valleys along with its peaks. An editorial celebrating Pete Souza, Obama’s newly appointed White House photographer, offers no perspective from Souza himself, and thus ends up feeling cold and detached (and that’s even considering that it’s written for an audience whose profession often demands remaining detached from their subjects). Overall, though, elevation is the order of the day at News Photographer. Here’s another image-driven magazine that you really can, you know, read for the articles.

News Photographer is, for better or worse, a trade magazine, and, though it generally avoids both the jargon-happiness and the hyper-professional perspective that so often afflict members of that genre, it occasionally falls victim to another trade-mag tendency: a self-centeredness so tenacious that, were it not so clearly rooted in insecurity, would seem to border on narcissism. As Alyssa Quart noted in a CJR essay last year, photojournalism is as imperiled as its print counterpart, and, perhaps as a result, preemptive self-defensiveness—look at the work we do! amateurs could never do this!—permeates News Photographer’s articles and even its images. (“DOING QUALITY WORK,” reads the caption underlining a photo of AP photographer Evan Vucci, unsubtly.)

The assumption about media-based trade magazines implicit in that posture—that the trade in question is, overall, in such turbulent flux as to render the publications that would document and defend it increasingly irrelevant—is both understandable and all too justified by current events. But, still, good work should speak for itself. And in a magazine whose editorial content is generally so strong, it’s unfortunate that the line dividing self-promotion from self-preservation would be blurred. -Megan Garber

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CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.