August 4, 2020

August is known in the book industry as the "dead zone," when agents and editors take their vacations ahead of one of the busiest months of the publishing calendar, September. But there are no summer doldrums this year: with movies and new television on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, books have remained one of the few forms of entertainment able to proceed relatively unaffected — and they're successfully filling the void.

On Tuesday alone, a number of notable releases hit the (virtual) shelves, including Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson. "It's an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far," raved The New York Times. Oprah Winfrey, in announcing Tuesday that Caste is her new book club selection, told CBS This Morning that "all of humanity needs to read this" and that it might be "the most important book" she's ever picked.

On the fiction front, also out Tuesday is Luster, the debut by Raven Leilani, described by BuzzFeed News as "the next great millennial novel." The book has been gaining buzz for weeks — "doesn't it feel like everyone is raving about this debut?" The Millions wrote — but Luster stands out for "the quality of the writing itself." Having read an early copy, I can attest: It deserves all the hype, and more.

Other late summer books have also earned raves — the memoir Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins, Laura van den Berg's short fiction collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, the novel Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, the memoir Memorial Drive by poet Natasha Trethewey — which makes it tempting to correlate the extraordinary summer publishing is having with the pandemic. That might be a stretch though: while some release dates have been moved up, most August releases were set pre-pandemic.

More likely, the lack of noise coming from the other usual spheres of entertainment means the major releases in publishing especially stand out. As Stephanie Meyer, the author of Midnight Sun, a new Twilight novel out Tuesday, offered to the probing New York Times about why this book, why now: "Because I finished it." Plus, "I am really excited when I have a book to read right now, because there's not much else that's exciting." Jeva Lange

11:59 a.m.

For the first time in months, New York City's daily COVID-19 positivity rate has risen above three percent.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) in a news briefing on Tuesday said that the city's coronavirus positivity rate is 1.38 percent based on its seven-day rolling average, but the daily positivity rate has risen to 3.25 percent, which according to The New York Times is the highest the number has been since June.

"That is cause for real concern," de Blasio said.

De Blasio also said that the city is facing a "serious problem" that is "primarily" in nine zip codes. Officials have been "particularly concerned about eight neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens" that "have accounted for about one-fourth of New York City's new cases in the past two weeks," The New York Times previously reported.

New York in recent months had brought its number of new COVID-19 cases down significantly after being the hardest-hit state in the United States amid the pandemic. But New York recently reported more than 1,000 new daily cases for the first time in months. The news that the daily positivity rate has risen above three percent was announced on the same day that New York City's elementary schools began in-person classes. The Times' Eliza Shapiro notes that if the city's positivity rate remains above three percent for seven days, public schools will be forced to close.

"We know we can turn it around, but everyone has to be a part of it," de Blasio said. "But we also know that there have to be very tough measures ready to go and that we will use them as quickly as needed." Brendan Morrow

11:32 a.m.

The National Football League is facing its first major in-season hurdle regarding the coronavirus pandemic after the league announced Tuesday that the Tennessee Titans had three players and five team personnel members test positive for COVID-19. The tests apparently went through multiple rounds of evaluation to confirm the results, as is league protocol.

The Titans are closing their facilities until Saturday, as are the Minnesota Vikings, who the Titans played Sunday, although there's no word if Minnesota actually has any positive tests.

As things stand, it seems the Titans and the league are hoping the team team can safely play against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, but it will likely be a wait-and-see approach. Scheduling logistics, of course, take a back seat to the health of the individuals who tested positive, but the league is reportedly mulling contigency plans should the game be postponed. Major League Baseball, for what it's worth, experienced two major outbreaks early in its 2020 season, but the regular season finished smoothly. Read more at ESPN. Tim O'Donnell

10:56 a.m.

Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has died, state media reported Tuesday. He was 91. The cause of death was not made clear, but he fell ill with an unspecified condition earlier this year.

Sheikh Sabah, whose family has ruled Kuwait for 260 years, had served as emir, the country's ultimate authority, since 2006. Before that he was prime minister and, for many decades, foreign minister. While in that role, per BBC, the staunch U.S. ally became known as the "dean of Arab diplomacy" for his efforts to restore relations with countries that supported Iraq during the Gulf War when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.

As emir, The Associated Press notes, he served as a mediator between Qatar and several Arab nations that launched a boycott against Doha, but the situation remains unresolved. In 2011, he maintained power during the Arab Spring protests, while still allowing demonstrations.

He is expected to be succeeded by his half brother, the 83-year-old crown prince, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah. Read more at BBC and The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

10:40 a.m.

When President Trump speaks in private about religion, "many" of his comments are "marked by cynicism and contempt," reports The Atlantic.

Former aides described how they have "heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base."

In one instance, Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen told The Atlantic that in 2015, Trump enthusiastically showed him an article about a megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million for a private jet; Trump reportedly said the pastor was "full of sh-t" and that "they're all hustlers." Cohen also remembered that once, when Trump was told that his son was at a playdate with a Jewish girl, he said to Cohen, "Great. I'm going to lose another one of my kids to your people." And according to Cohen, Trump frequently mocked Mitt Romney's Mormon faith.

In another instance, a former adviser recalled showing Trump a video of a televangelist performing "faith healings," which Trump reportedly laughed at, saying, "Man, that's some racket." The report additionally quotes a recording of Trump meeting with religious figures in 2016 in which he reportedly admitted that "I don't know the Bible as well as some of the other people" and joked about being taken aback when Mike Pence asked him to bow his head and pray.

"I said, 'Excuse me?’" Trump reportedly said. "I'm not used to it."

Former campaign official A.J. Delgado told The Atlantic that Trump is "not a religious guy," while former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res said, "I always assumed he was an atheist." The White House told The Atlantic that Trump is "a champion for religious liberty" who is "also well known for joking and his terrific sense of humor, which he shares with people of all faiths." Read more at The Atlantic. Brendan Morrow

10:13 a.m.

Politico's Ryan Lizza rewatched President Trump's 2015 and 2016 primary and presidential debate performances ahead of Tuesday night's opening presidential debate between Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, and came to the realization that Trump is pretty good on the stage. Brash at times, sure, but Lizza believes the president actually had a strategy when he was up there, unlike his free-wheeling ways on Twitter. That said, Trump will likely have to shake things up this time.

Phillippe Reines, who served as the Trump stand-in during Hillary Clinton's debate prep in 2016, said that back then Clinton struggled to counter the novelty of Trump's candidacy, adding that no one, whether that be Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Biden, could have fared better on stage against Trump. Too many Americans were willing to give his non-conventional methods a chance, Lizza writes. "What’s scary is that I'm dressed like him and I have the Trump mannerisms, but I'm not crazy," Reines said. "I'm still Philippe Reines. And when you hear me saying what he says, you see the power of it. Even without any of the crazy stuff."

Now, though, voters have watched Trump in action for nearly four years, and his job approval rating isn't pretty, which means he'll have to adapt and defend his actual governing record. Lizza writes that his ability to do so "shouldn't be underestimated," but Reines also said Biden shouldn't "overthink" his strategy and declare that "most of what you hear from [Trump] tonight will be false." Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

8:59 a.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign is once again slamming Facebook, accusing it of "regression" when it comes to fighting misinformation on its platform.

Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday in a letter published by Axios, saying that even after Zuckerberg in September announced steps the company would be taking to fight misinformation, "rather than seeing progress, we have seen regression." The campaign urges Facebook to take "meaningful action" against posts from President Trump making false claims about mail-in voting.

"Facebook's continued promise of future action is serving as nothing more than an excuse for inaction," Dillon said. "Millions of people are voting. Meanwhile, your platform is the nation's foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process."

Facebook has added labels to certain posts by Trump while leaving them online; for example, when Trump claimed that "ballots being returned to states cannot be accurately counted," Facebook attached a label saying "both voting in person and voting by mail have a long history of trustworthiness in the U.S." Facebook previously announced it would not accept new political ads in the week prior to Election Day.

The Biden campaign, though, writes that as Facebook leaves Trump posts online, the president "clearly understands that Facebook will not hold him to their clearly stated policies."

In an open letter in July, the Biden campaign condemned Facebook, calling for "clear rules — applied to everyone, including Donald Trump — that prohibit threatening behavior and lies about how to participate in the election." Facebook said in a statement at the time that "we live in a democracy, where the elected officials decide the rules around campaigns," adding, "there is an election coming in November and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it." Brendan Morrow

7:57 a.m.

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden head into their first debate on Tuesday with most Americans already certain about how they will vote in the November election. "Presidential debates matter less than people think," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Voters don't watch to make up their minds. They watch to root for their favorites."

Still, the on-stage meetings of Trump and Biden could sway the thinning group of undecided voters in key battleground states, such as Florida and North Carolina. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 29 percent of Americans see debates as very important or extremely important to their votes. The New York Times noted that the disclosure that Trump paid little or no federal income taxes for years could become a debate focus. Harold Maass

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