Say what you will about CNN's Anderson Cooper: son of Gloria Vanderbilt, prematurely gray, closet fan of MTV's My Super Sweet 16, curiously single, sharply dressed. But the man knows when to abandon the starchy newsman image and roll up his sleeves for America. This is precisely what he does in Dispatches from the Edge: it's part correspondent's diary, part family memoir.
The overriding impression of the book is that, despite his best efforts, Anderson Cooper cannot remain a talking head like much of the news media. He cares, or at least has a conscience. There's a recurring theme in his book of his meager but significant attempts to chronicle the existence of the dead -- whether in Sri Lanka, Niger, Iraq, or the American Gulf Coast -- so that they're not entirely forgotten.
Whether in the role of correspondent or author, he likes getting his hands dirty. In these regions torn by natural disaster, famine, or war, his travelogues are not particularly pretty. The otherwise unspoken subject of newsman protection comes up a lot -- before his CNN days, he had to pay bodyguards out of pocket to maneuver him through harm's way. As it so happens, there's a whole market out there for enterprising freelance heavies to assist journalists. Some are more trustworthy than others.
The personal information is mostly formative, and framed around the losses of his father (heart problems) and brother (suicide). Even though the circumstances surrounding the latter might have a certain dark appeal to an outsider -- this is the Vanderbilt family, after all -- the author's resulting confusion and emptiness displays a decided lack of intrigue. Far more confessional is his kinship with Mississippi and Louisiana, where his father grew up, and where the author's own earliest memories are set.
Anderson Cooper has the makings of an interesting writer. War stories aren't my favorite subject -- I hadn't read any since Shutterbabe -- but I appreciate knowing that there's more to the story than "war is hell."