This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see an amazing exhibit at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. I first read about Lee Bontecou in the New Yorker a month or so ago. The article described a young woman artist who had been poised to become a household name, but instead quietly excused herself from the art world for a secluded life in rural Pennsylvania. Now, more than 30 years later she has been coaxed out of hiding for a retrospective that includes the work that first brought her notoriety as well as everything she’s done since then, while working out of the spotlight. I had never heard her name mentioned in art history classes nor had I seen any of her work in New York galleries, yet the article made her work sound undeniably compelling. Having now seen these remarkable wall hangings, constructions, mobiles, and drawings in person, I can say quite frankly that I was truly amazed by her work. It is very difficult to describe Bontecou’s work since it only obliquely relates to the work of other artists of her generation. The intricately fashioned constructions and mobiles are somehow simultaneously emotional and technical, intricate and organic. I implore everyone to see this retrospective. It is a remarkable event. Here’s the deal: 10/5/03 to 1/11/04 at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; 2/14/04 to 5/30/04 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and 7/30/04 to 9/27/04 MoMA QNS, New York. Abrams has put out a lovely companion volume for the retrospective. Also in art, yesterday at the bookstore I noticed a good-looking new book by the whimsical architectural illustrator, Matteo Pericoli. In 2001 Pericoli put out a book called Manhattan Unfurled, a hard bound fold out drawing of the Manhattan skyline as viewed from the perimeter of the island. In a simple yet playful continuous line drawing, the whole of the city is captured from viewpoints across the Hudson and East Rivers. His new book Manhattan Within is another hard bound fold out drawing, but this time it takes an insider’s view of the city. In the same style as before, he draws the skyline of the city as seen from within the confines of Central Park. Both books include journals full of Pericoli’s musings and observations as he trekked inside and outside of the city trying to capture its spirit with pen and paper. Taken together, the two books are a refreshingly new take on an old and much used subject. Visit Matteo Pericoli’s website to see his work.
When: Early afternoon Monday 9/15/03Where: A park bench in Larchmont (A tony neighborhood in L.A.)Who: Twenty-something manWhat: Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks.Description: “Once it was easy to distinguish the staid Bourgeois from the radical Bohemians. This field study of America’s latest elite–a hybrid Brooks calls the Bobos–covers everything from cultural artifacts to Bobo attitudes towards sex, morality, work, and leisure.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh’s labor of love, released it’s fourth book this past week: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France’s modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI’ve done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I’ve put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that’s it, that’s the whole book. And that’s pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I’ve described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel’s piece in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review in which the “it-novelist” discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford’s Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: “What does ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sound like when you’re in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?” It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I’m only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the “best of 2003” column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley’s column.
In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.The latest: Mugabe declared winner in Zimbabwe’s one-man election
In those first years the roads were filled with refugees huddled in their rags. Filthy anoraks, torn and dustshraffled Starterjackets. Masked and mittened, tatterslumped on the macadam. Ruined hitchhikers on a boak and godless freeway. Their barrows heavy with shoom, dented pails of dirthat. Towing carts or wagons. On tandembikes and tricycles, eyes wild and heedless. Husks of men shuffling towards a charred and empty nothingwaste. Feverdreams of turkey on rye, barrelpickle on the side. Good, thick tomatoslices. But their ravenous mouths were sandwichless, the frail lie exposed. A cracked and empty cicadashell. The new world gray and skeletonboned, heavy with reckoning. No barrelpickles anywhere, not even Polish dills.
Late in the year and growing colder. The mountains looming. He told the boy that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that there was no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that. Their rotting bodies found by the bloodcults, flesh boiled in great pots and eaten from wooden bowls. Their bones whittled to rude spears, hair made as twine. Hands dried and hollowed, worn as gloves. Skulls for soccerpractice. You had to hand it to those bloodcults. They really knew their way around a corpse.
They pressed on through the withered highcountry. Peckers small and anxious against the cold. Scrotes rocksolid, scrunched to the taints. In the afternoon it began to snow and they made camp early and crouched under the tarp. The cold gripped merciless, a silent oblivion. The man made a fire with a few meager branchscraps but it gave little heat. Camping, the man said with a grin as the snow came down all around them. Gotta love it. No response from the boy save a chattering of teeth. A tear frozen to his windreddened cheek. Kids these days, the man thought as he peered out at the steadyfalling snow. They never appreciate anything.
He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. The boy. The man was holding the boy. Shh, he said. The man was saying that. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know. Your pants are wet.
Should I tell you what it was?
Please do, he said. He was lying though. He didnt want to hear it at all. He’d rather do almost anything.
Okay Papa. So we were in the house that we used to live in, and I was eating a pancake for breakfast. But then it wasnt really a pancake. It was more of like a car that uses syrup instead of gas. But there werent any wheels on it. It kind of lifted off the ground and hovered around? But only when youre singing the pancake song.
Interesting, the man said. For dreary grinding months, he had pushed a balky shopping cart through a numb and deadened land. Not a sound, nothing to see besides lowhanging fog and immolated ruin. Yet he had never been this bored.
The boy went on.
And mommy was driving me to school in my pancake car. She was singing the song, about pancakes being tasty and theyre better with blueberries in them. And the seats were big pieces of banana but they werent that sticky even though they were big pieces of banana. And then I told her that I forgot my mathbook and we’d have to go back but all of a sudden her head wasnt her head. It was a baseball player’s head.
Was it Sid Bream’s head?
Yes Papa. It was Sid Bream’s head. I dont remember what happened next. But it was really scary.
I know, the man said, hugging him closer. But he was lying again. He didnt think the pancake dream was scary at all.
In the morning of the day following they heard a low steady thunder that grew louder as they walked. Soon they were before a waterfall plunging off a high shant of rock and falling eighty feet through a gray fleen of mist into the pool below. They stood side by side calling to each other over the din.
Is the water cold?
Yes. It’s freezing.
Would you like to go in?
No. Thats okay, Papa.
Are you sure?
Yes Papa. It looks really cold.
Oh, come on. Lets go for a swim.
Okay Papa. If you say so.
The man took off his clothes and walked into the water. Snausage retreating like the head of a boxturtle. The boy undressed too and tarried at the edge, paleblue and wracked with shiver.
Come on in. It’s not too bad.
Are you sure Papa? It looks really cold.
The boy took a breath and dove in, screaming from the shock of it. He hopped up and down, bony arms hugging his thin chest. The man smiled, paddling to keep his head above water.
Are you okay?
Yes Papa, he said, jaw clenched tight. It’s really fun.
I knew youd like it.
Just then, the man saw movement on the swackened hillcrest up along the road. He swam to the boy and pulled him towards him. What is it, Papa? The boy said. The man said nothing and paddled them to a low bunt of stone behind the waterfall. Shh, he said as they settled in. We must be quiet.
It was a group of four, a man and three women. They were talking quietly. The man’s eyes widened. He knew what they were. If they saw the boy they would surely snatch him up. Never to be seen again. He cradled the boy to his chest.
Who is it, Papa?
They carried filefolders and clipboards, wore sweaters and cheap haircuts. The man looked away. Theyre from Protective Services.
Never mind, the man whispered. His heart ached as he watched them pass by. If they see us here they’ll take you from me.
Really? the boy said. He watched them with interest as they trod through the haze.
Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.
There were a few readers among the sleepyheads on the train this morning. I have to say, I’m impressed with my fellow readers this morning for the caliber of the books they were reading. Here’s what I spotted:Black Boy by Richard Wright (I read this book in high school. Still one of my favorites.)Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth (One of the books that made The Prizewinners list I put together last month.)The Magic Mountain by Thomas MannThe Way of the Flesh by Samuel Butler (V.S. Pritchett called it “one of the time-bombs of literature.”)Granta 91: Wish You Were Here (I love Granta. This issue includes Ismail Kadare, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally and James Lasdun.)Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (For all the classicists out there.)Three Junes by Julia GlassAnd a couple of bestsellers:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling