The Painted Word – Tom Wolfe – 4/5 Stars
I haven’t read a lot of Tom Wolfe (white suit, not Southern writer) but he was one of those public figures who was just around in my childhood watching tv. He made a guest spot on the Simpsons for example. This essay takes a look at contemporary art about up to 1975 ending more or less with pop art and photorealism. The essay begins with a paraphrased idea that art used to work: the art drives the theories, but now the theory drives the art. He traces the idea that you can’t really understand certain new art without really understanding the theories, generally written before and early, by critics from which representative examples follow. This becomes especially true with abstract expressionism but is also captured within Dada, Cubism, impressionism and other late 19th century and 20th century schools of art. I would say everything past pre-Raphaelite, but I honestly don’t know what I am talking about. Tom Wolfe does a much better job tracing not only the schools of art of the 20th century but capturing the ways in which theory drove practice for so many, but also what perhaps undermines those ideas, what stresses the system, and what art is versus what art does. As someone with zero, and I mean zero art history background, I found myself in a similar place to the persona version of Tom Wolfe at the beginning having (playfully) felt that I wasted all my time looking, when I should have just been reading. He makes a tongue in cheek prediction at the end that galleries in 2000 would simply hang printed out pages of art critical theory on the wall, if there even are galleries anymore. He certainly doesn’t guess how much money-laundering would simply take over the art world in the 80s and 90s. Imagine trying to explain NFTs to him. Anyway, he seems to feel quite a bit about art and the art industry (in terms of cultural production) as I do with a few written genres. There’s just less money in writing I guess.
Citizen – Claudia Rankine – 5/5 Stars
I admit it’s weird to put this book in a “Nonfiction” post, and while there’s clearly a lot of poetic language and poesy within this book, including a lot of free verse ruminations of topics, there’s such a clear set of argumentative observations and argumentation here that it’s impossible to fully classify it. That, along with the visual elements of the book make it even further difficult to classify. In this way, the mixed media aspect of it (especially given that I’ve listened to the audiobook version a few times) makes it comparable in form to a lot of Anne Carson books. I think this comparison, though Anne Carson’s content and theme is much different in general, helps to classify some of the more curious parts of this book. For one, Citizen, on the cover, looks to be covering recent police and white vigilantism murders of Black men, Black women, and Black children. There’s a disembodied hoodie hood on the cover, which clearly and purposely evokes the murder of Trayvon Martin. There’s plenty of other direct references within this book to other murders as well. But given the publication of this book in 2017, it’s hard to pin it directly to a single murder. The sad reality of course is that no one murder stands out, unless or until it does. There’s been so many flashpoints, and so many that didn’t end up being flashpoints, and there’s not a clear singular understanding of why that is. It’s partly because there’s been a disavowal of treating crimes individually to indicate a systemic problem. This is more done by national movements and figures. The other reason is that the defenders of white supremacy want to isolate and individualize cases, as a way to try to explain them away. The other side of this is that the loss of the individual life can get somewhat overtake by the national groundswell, and this is a tragedy in a different way.
The other curious element of this book, although it makes a LOT of sense, is the heavy focus on Serena Williams as a subject. This focus does allow us to draw attention to a specific example, namely the most dominant women’s tennis player of all time, and arguably most dominant tennis player overall (people need to talk more about her additional ridiculous success as a doubles player) but also in her being such a singular presence as both a Black woman playing tennis (she shares this with here sister Venus) and an absolute target of media and the wider public (she shares this somewhat less with her sister. There’s always more to say with this book, and since I reread it almost yearly, I will say more next time.
Let Us Compare Mythologies – Leonard Cohen – 3/5 Stars
It’s hard to know exactly what to do with almost any Leonard Cohen writing. For one, he’s primarily known for his songs, and more so his songwriting, at least for me. The fact that he began his career as a poet and a novelist obviously adds to his overall writing profile. But so many writers who work in multiple fields really don’t succeed in all of them. Chekhov wrote brilliant fiction and plays, Hardy wrote brilliant fiction and poetry, and there’s so many poets who wrote amazing novels, and a lot of novelists who wrote terrible poetry. I don’t want to name names, John Updike, but they’re out there for sure.
Here we have a songwriter who also wrote poems. And this is an early collection from Cohen, when he was only 22 or so. So it’s hard to say it’s bad (it’s not), but it’s hard to say it’s good (who knows!), but it does show confidence and depth (maybe feigned).
A Load of Hooey – Bob Odenkirk – 3/5 Stars
It’ hard to exactly know what to do with this short collection of comedy writing, in part because I generally think almost all comedy books are bad. There’s something lost in writing comedy in the sake of comedy. Whether it’s a lot of the organic humor that happens in fiction or the way that performance in sketch comedy or stand up helps so much. For Bob Odenkirk’s book what is really necessary here is the use of additional voices in the writing process. This is shown most clearly with the use of additional voices in the reading of the audiobook, which is quite funny at times, but over all very weak.
I love Mr Show and have since college. It came a few years earlier but it captured a lot for me in both of absurdist humor, but also some amount of biting satire, but lower on the satire. There’s still plenty of that energy in this book, but much to our chagrin, there’s lots of JOKES! and that is less good. I didn’t hate it, but if it weren’t a free audiobook (and it’s really short by the way), I would be pretty bummed about it.
You Do You – Various (but Tan France) – 3/5 Stars
A podcasty Audible Original in which Tan France and Nikki Levy host a series of storytelling clips from LGBTQ storytellers whose stories here are all funny (and sometimes really funny — eg someone accidentally being placed on stage with kids from Make a Wish during a Beyonce, and upstaging them) and often involve a lot of pathos in addition. These are stories that celebrate the highs and lows that comes from the kinds of oppression and then involves a kind of breakthrough through love and support and community. It has a darker edge than Queer Eye, but it still has much of the same level of energy. The stories are all very funny, and while the total amount adds up to mostly a morsel, it’s a worthwhile and enjoyable listen over all.
Here is New York – EB White – 5/5 Stars
Depending on your take of New York City as both a place and a concept, this 1948 essay by EB White might speak to you. While he has little to say about native New Yorkers, he has a lot to say about transient Americans who move to New York. He begins the essay basically stating in a kind of Gertrude Stein in inverse spirit that by the time you read this essay the New York he is describing is already gone. The introduction to this essay written by Roger Angell does us the further taking White’s observations into the early 2000s to further illustrate the changing face of New York. For 1948 New York, I particularly this of other New Yorks I know. Perhaps this is the New York of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or King King, or Revolutionary Road or any of the many different New Yorks I know. It’s the New York of the early stories of John Updike, who in turn is remembering his own version of the city. What’s great about these differently mapped versions is that they all speak to the idea that white is attempting to capture in the first place about that changing sense of place. I think this would make for a good companion piece to Megan Daum’s “My Misspent Youth” in how both essays try to work through the real versus the imaginary. For White, who is from Maine, New York is seen through outsiders. He almost sees the residents of New York as side-characters in his own drama, but he’s not self-centering in this way. Instead, it’s about realizing he can never know them, he can only know himself.
Bad Faith – 4/5 Stars – Mike Daisy
What is MOST interesting about this monologue/stage show is just how untrustworthy, or more accurately, how ambiguously trustworthy it is. It’s hard to figure out because Mike Daisy is famous for producing a deeply bleak story for This American Life in which he reported on suicides in Chinese manufacturing facilities of Apple products. Later that story was retracted when This American Life could not verify the info. There’s a good chance you heard it if you listened to the show enough. You almost certainly listened to the follow up episode where an angry Ira Glass grilled Mike Daisy for a long interview while the rest of the show was dedicated to sourcing the lack of sources.
This show is about gaslighting, a rough sounding divorce, how all of America was in a four year (with lingering who knows how much) abusive relationship with the president, and also that story from This American Life. Only talking for a small part of this show about it, Mike Daisy makes a few claims. One, that the original show was always supposed to be a blend of fact and fiction, and more of a stage show than reporting. Ok. Two, that This American Life interviewed him for six hours after and then only cut a 12-minute segment from that. That part does seems believable. The rest is open relationships, the power of divorce, gaslighting, and lots of energy and humor. It’s really, actually affecting two hours, and since it doesn’t dwell too much on the This American Life stuff, it’s easy to look past it to the rest of the good qualities.