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Dispatches from the Edge

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Anderson Cooper

Few people have witnessed more scenes of chaos and conflict around the world than Anderson Cooper, whose groundbreaking coverage on CNN has changed the way we watch the news.<P>After growing up on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Cooper felt a … see full wiki

Author: Anderson Cooper
1 review about Dispatches from the Edge

Best memoir I've read in longer than my memory goes back

  • Jun 30, 2008
Pros: Pacing, interweaving plotlines, narrative style

Cons: I wanted a bit more

The Bottom Line: This story has all the potential of being "look at me." Instead the "look at this" becomes the main focus. The book is admirably balanced here. I recommend it highly.

I get about 1% of my “news” from television. I became aware of Anderson Cooper by accident. I was keeping track of the Katrina aftermath (I have family in Mississippi and I live in Alabama, though not in an area directly affected), but mostly from print media. The print media started referring to Mr. Cooper as a stand out because he was not the typical talking head. So I did what for me is nearly unthinkable, I turned on CNN. Like many, I assume, I was very impressed not only by his willingness to confront but his grace in doing it. FOX has given us a taste of confrontation without tact, Mr. Cooper wasn’t just “honest” he was artful.

Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival is a rather brief book, a series of sketches pieced together in an easy to follow narrative style.

In a way, not unlike Christopher McCandless (from Into the Wild, Cooper set out in the early 1990s to start a journalism career. Rather than go through the normal channels (or via family connections which I will touch in a moment), he faked a press pass and started to go to the most dangerous places he could find: Sarajevo, Niger, Rwanda; and so on. For a while during this time, he became a freelancer for Channel One; they also hired him but only for a year. So he continued his journeys. He witnessed death by war, by famine, by neglect; he also witnessed various acts of kindness and bravery and the other brighter alternatives to the carnage. These are not balanced; the horrors far outweigh the good.

In 1995, he joined ABC and moved to CNN in 2001 where his fame really took off though a positive notoriety is probably a better descriptor.

Interspersed with this story of searching out the worst places to capture stories are tales of Mr. Cooper’s life. He is the son of Wyatt Cooper and last surviving heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, Gloria. These moments in the narrative center mainly on his father’s death when Anderson was not yet in his teens and on his older brother, Carter, who committed suicide by jumping off a 10 story balcony while his mother watched unable to do anything. While his life was one of privilege, Mr. Cooper says nothing of potential influence his background had. It is hard to accept that he was able to make it on his own for half a decade in horrific places under worse conditions without some help, but he mentions none and seems to be sincere in the lacuna he leaves here. He can say that he didn’t use his potential family ties to get him into ABC right out of journalism school, so this can be taken as an object lesson if nothing else.

The last two thirds, roughly, of the book center on Katrina and rightly so. As with his earlier jumps into dangerous territory, he goes into what was nearly, then became certainly the worst natural disaster in recorded memory. Of course, the aftermath (usually the subject of the “disaster”) wasn’t the story. Here is where Mr. Cooper set himself totally apart. He doesn’t play this up at all. He tells his stories of finding dead bodies floating of the dead being eaten by rats; he tells the stories of hanging out with the police in New Orleans before the National Guard arrived; then he tells the stories of hanging out with them. He holds nothing back, including the course language—at first it seemed a bit out of place, but if you put everything in its context, the language may not have been course enough. This is while trying to get information out of anyone in any level of government of why things had not fallen apart but simply failed to materialize in the first place.

The travelogue style made the book very quick to read. To be a bit boastful, I write my best when I write travelogues for friends while I am in places other than home: new perspectives give you new things to write about and a different view of “home” so it is natural that he, I, and many others, do our best writing when away from home.

He is at times poetic and at times a bit over the top with some of his metaphors, but the last is easily overlooked. I wasn’t sure how to take what seemed like intense self-pity over the loss of his father and brother. After I got a sense of what I think was intended, I went back and reread some of those pieces. Yes, they do contain self-pity, but that is part of the point. The dispatches are from war, disasters, and survival. He spends much time talking to those who have lasted through wars and disasters (at least as long as he was with them to collect their stories) but it is also a tale of a personal survival. Forget his matrilineal line. If you read it without knowing the Vanderbilt crap, then what you read becomes something that mixes the horrible with the poignant, the vastness of destruction with the bathos of an individual family.

Going in, I expected a spoiled rich kid showing up his abilities at standing tall during a natural disaster. I was pleasantly surprised in all accounts. Even though much of it is gruesome, I actually enjoyed my time with the book in the same way I would if I were talking to him on the phone—it does come across as that intimate.


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