People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!
“My name is Marina Abramović and I think I’m an artist,” were the first words the performance artist spoke at a post-show panel last week, two days after the conclusion of her eleven-week performance, The Artist Is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art. I observed the artist twice during this time, once in March and again in April. The only visible differences were her sitting partners and the color of her dress, the first floor-length in blue and the second identical, in red. The colors were selected to aid her endurance: blue to calm, red to invigorate, and in May she wore white for purification. Although I had watched Abramović sit for hours (though not face to face) I’d never heard her speak. In fact, I’d barely seen her move. The way she held her pose with her shiny face gazing forward, she resembled a wax figure from Madame Toussads. Abramović sat quietly with strength, but when she finally spoke, she spoke with command–her husky voice issuing words in an Eastern European accent.
“Anger,” she claimed, was a driving force for staging the re-performances of her work. She listed the mass media, the fashion and design industries, theater, and MTV as culprits who have re-appropriated images and performances from her oeuvre without giving attribution. She would like to lend order to re-performances of performance art, something she also emphasized with her re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005. She acknowledges that re-performed pieces inevitably change, but likens these adjustments to new interpretations of Beckett or Mozart. Abramović added that she won’t allow re-performances that endanger the performers’ lives–such as one piece that involved a pistol and bullet. Still, she dismisses her own, prior self-endangerment with brio: “It was the seventies. I was crazy.”
Abramović’s The Artist is Present played on similar restraints to those in her MoMA performance in the 1980s. Nightsea Crossing consisted of 22 performances in 19 locations where Abramović and her partner Ulay sat facing each other motionless seven hours a day for days on end. Of the powers one gains through stilling oneself in this way, Abramović has commented: “Kafka said in one of his stories, ‘Just sit at a table and do nothing and the whole world will be revealed in front of you.’” Which is exactly what happened with The Artist Is Present, and not only on a metaphorical level. The world came to Abramović. Over two-and-a-half months, 1,545 people sat across from her (while even more waited for the chance) and over 700,000 museum-goers witnessed her atrium performance. Who knows how many more observed from the virtual world as the performance was streamed online. Celebrities sat. Many people cried. Other performance artists co-opted her performance. At the Wednesday evening panel, the exhibition’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, admitted that when he first envisioned Abramović’s performance, he thought the second seat would often remain empty. He seemed pleased to be wrong.
Also in attendance Wednesday evening were the thirty-six performers who re-performed Abramović’s five pieces within the exhibition. It was revealed that several of the performers had fainted the first day, unaccustomed to the duration and the physical demands of the performances. Marco Anelli, the photographer who sat behind Abramović and took portraits of each sitter’s face, was present. As was Paco Blancas, a makeup artist whose visage resembles Edgar Allan Poe. Paco sat across from Abramović twenty-one times during her performance–more than anyone else–and commemorated the experience by having the number 21 tattooed on his arm. Another woman in the audience said she was overseas when the exhibition started. She began watching Abramović’s performance over the internet, and it quickly turned into an obsession.
Why this sudden obsession with Abramović? Yes, there were nude performances. And Abramović, the artist, was present. But that alone doesn’t offer much of an explanation. Abramović’s re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces garnered less attention even though the pieces were more sensational. Consider her re-performance of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, where museum-goers listened while Abramović masturbated under the stage and related her fantasies about the observers above her over a loudspeaker. Her re-performance of her own Lips of Thomas involved cutting a pentagram into her stomach with a razor blade and then lying naked on a cross of ice.
The Artist Is Present was on camera. It was interactive and online. Abramović has spoken many times about how her duration pieces have the capacity transform both herself and the viewer. But I also wonder if the interactive and ever-changing nature of the piece influenced the popularity of the performance, which by the end had become a media phenomenon. Gauging the endurance of each sitter was like sport. As my friends and I observed from the sidelines, we speculated how long each person would last. Catherine Lacey at HTMLGiant compared Abramović ’s performance to Zen meditation. There was a competitive and a meditative side, but was there also a gimmick? We the museum-goers were invited to participate in a work of art greater than ourselves, where we became creative subjects as well as voyeurs. Is the overwhelming response to this participatory performance much different than our attraction to reality TV, to YouTube, to monitoring status updates on Facebook? Did The Artist Is Present also respond to a cultural habituation to the constant update? To our narcissism? Abramović said that as she stared into her sitting partners’ eyes she acted as a mirror so that they could look inside themselves.
Or was Abramović’s act of sitting for more than 700 hours and sacrificing sleep each night (waking every 45 minutes to rehydrate) in order to share herself and her art with her audience an act of tremendous benevolence and generosity? I would say both. Abramović called the experience the most profound of her life. She claims, “My spirit is different.” And perhaps that is enough.
[Image credit: Jim Kuhn]
You can’t swing your arms around in a general interest bookstore without hitting three or four “theme” cookbooks, which collect recipes related to a certain motif. This trend explains books like The Book Lover’s Cookbook, Dinner Dates: A Cookbook for Couples Cooking Together, and The Sopranos Family Cookbook. These are books you buy as gifts for people you don’t know that well.But as with every rule there is an exception, which brings me to I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands, which collects recipes culled from bands like Death Cab for Cutie, They Might Be Giants, and Belle & Sebastian. My old friends The Walkmen are in it too, which is fitting because they used to have recipe section on their web site. That’s where I first learned about their “Foreign Chicken Dinner,” the recipe they’ve contributed to the book. They don’t have the recipe on their site any more, and I can’t remember exactly what was in it, but I seem to recall it involved tomato sauce.
Millions contributor Rodger Jacobs sent me a note about Hard Case Crime, an imprint that resurrects the pulp fiction format for “the best in hardboiled crime fiction, ranging from lost noir masterpieces to new novels by today’s most powerful writers, featuring stunning original cover art in the grand pulp style.” Among those powerful writers is Stephen King whose previously unpublished book Colorado Kid will join new titles by Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake in headlining their 2005-06 lineup. Here’s Hard Case’s writeup on the new King book and here’s a sample chapter.
After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.
The boy wizard isn’t gay, but apparently his beloved professor is. J.K. Rowling “outed” Dumbledore at a Carnegie Hall reading, inspiring “gasps and applause” as well as wire stories. Over the years, Rowling hasn’t been particularly aggressive about being a self-promoter; she hasn’t had to as the Harry Potter books have made her rich and famous without her having to occupy too much of the spotlight. Still, this seems like an all too easy way to gin up a little controversy and keep Harry Potter in the headlines now that the series is over.Now I won’t deny that it makes plenty of sense for writers to flesh out the lives of their characters in their minds. Many writers take this a step further and put these fictional biographies on paper. And it’s quite probable that in writing Dumbledore over the years, Rowling decided that he was gay.As the creator of perhaps the most beloved set of characters in literary history, Rowling has a tremendous amount of power. This sort of power can be easily abused. Knowing they will get no more books from Rowling, fans will take each new tidbit about Harry and the gang like the starving might savor a crumb. Meanwhile, each of these out-of-thin-air details will be folded neatly into the growing pantheon of Potter companion literature.To me, though, there’s something terribly spare and arbitrary about these post-publication revelations. What are we as readers supposed to do with these out of context details? Can we ignore them? Should we?As a side note, have there been other examples of similar, post-publication, extra-textual revelations related to famous books? I tried to think of some, but came up empty.