Art

Books We Need to Read in Trump’s

In light of the inauguration of an American president with a now-indisputable fascist bent, I’ve put together a reading list for a Trump presidency. These books are either lesser-known or often pigeonholed in other niches -there are a few of these kinds of lists going around, so I’m trying to offer some suggestions that might be a bit more novel.
Abolition Democracy: Angela Davis’s very long-form interview. A manifesto for most political realities, especially relevant now.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay’s essay collection, dealing with race and gender and the intersection of the two.

Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stone cold bad ass.

Long Way Gone: The memoir of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, a story that speaks to the physical and psychological realities faced by children living in constant war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Why families migrate, how they seek to survive in extreme poverty and in adverse surroundings.

Notes From No Man’s Land: Essays on how America has handled race, on NAFTA, and one absolutely brutal essay I’ve taught many times about lynching and telephone poles.

Fun Home: One of the best graphic memoirs I’ve read, addressing gender, sexuality, suicide and mental health, and how all of that shit mixes together in the USA

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion’s crushing novel on the experience of a woman who is tired of living in a certain kind of male reality.

The Bell Jar: A good poet’s excellent novel. Gender, femininity, mental health, and a seemingly intractable fortresses of sexism.

The Demon-Haunted World: The King of Nerds explains why we all need to science way harder.

MAUS: Because this shit has happened before.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Because war sucks, and children wind up with the heaviest shit piled on them.

The Pillowman: A Fascist police state that pretends to care about children and tries to censor artistic expression. Imagine that.

Animal Farm: A pig that superficially resembles a human fucks everyone over in order to obtain an unprecedented and obscene amount of power, then continues to fuck over everyone, especially those who have worked very hard in his service, so as to make himself more comfortable and to further cement his power.

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Just Kids, Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is touching and well-written. The account of her life with the visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe is a glimpse into a very isolated and very culturally important moment. Their artistic and aesthetic nascence is recounted well and authentically, communicated a kind of existential striving that put them at odds with much of what was around them. While certain aspects of the book felt a bit performative or pretentious, the vast majority of Smith’s writing seems much more concerned with depicting a reality than with depicting the author in the best possible light.

Different modes of writing are separate enough that I’m usually cautious about narrative books written by good songwriters or good standup comics. While the emotional realities are always there, the translation and communication of those realities often requires a skillset that may not be present. Patti Smith clearly has the narrative chops to pull this kind of thing off, and does it well. There is a lot of intention and reflection being distilled into the narrative, less a reliance on anecdotes or filler storytelling.

While my overall impression of the book remains positive, there is a bit of pretension and preciousness in here that isn’t my favorite, as well as a bit more name-dropping than I care for (although most of the name-drop-heavy antecdotes are pretty essential to the narrative, so handling that well seems like a rather titanic task). It’s a hard bit of criticism to sustain, but it’s enough to keep me from recommending this book completely free of any “well, but” riders.

The Grapes of Wrath and the Journals Behind the Book

Image via The Guardian

The Grapes of Wrath is another one of those American classics that I somehow avoided reading in high school. Getting to read all of these canonical tomes as an adult has, thus far, not proved to be a disappointment. The Grapes of Wrath is a remarkable timeless piece of work, relevant as ever in 2015. And the direct prose, seasoned with occasional King James Bible lyricism, reads as well as ever.

Not that readers need some guy on the internet to tell them that this book is good. But a less obvious suggestion than “I also think that this thing that everyone thinks is good, is good” that I highly recommend, especially for writers, is reading “Working Days: A Journal Of The Grapes Of Wrath”. This collection of journals that Steinbeck kept during the process of writing this novel centers around the daily log he kept, in which he made an entry every day he wrote. It also contains the journal entries he made during editing and the process of publication, as well as extensive endnotes and background information by scholar Robert DeMott. While the information text and later entries are interesting, the central “working days” journal is definitely the highlight. It’s fascinating to see just how much sheer work goes into the process of great writing -not magical inspiration, but a grinding amount of man-hours and forced effort. It does a great job of cutting through lots of the romantic bullshit that gets heaped on great creators.

The process of creating good art is work. It’s also often full of brutalizing self-doubt, anxiety, and a fleeting certainty that you are actually no good, that you are a pretender, and that your big project is a crock of worthless shit and that anyone with a shred of perception will see the truth and call you out. And creation can veer into grandiosity, your unshakable self-important knowledge that this is a great work, a future masterpiece, something that will make everyone stop being evil and sit and feel and understand. Steinbeck, writing for himself as an act of creative discipline, shows every foible and every swing in the process of deep, involved writing. It’s good to know that you aren’t alone in your insanity.

Recommendation: Read the canon, of course. And if you are any kind of creative laborer, read the journals, too. 

Literary Privilege, MFAs, and that Marxist chip on my Shoulder

cartoon-me maxist chip

Writing is less and less a thing that people can do as a job, and the price of admission is getting higher. With their spreading proliferation, MFAs in Creative Writing are becoming the postmodern equivilent of an undergraduate diploma -sure, you can succeed without one, but, seriously, you need to get one. And the idea of spending the amount of time and/or money that an MFA demands with (likely as not) nothing of substance to show for it at the end of the program is an idea that only appeals to:

A) the hopelessly naive and/or optimistic.

B) those who are in position of privilege such that they can freely spend that kind of time and money without regard to the consequences.

The problem here is that good writers and clever people with compelling shit to say don’t always come from the uppermost bracket of society. In fact, that bracket seems to have saturated the literary dialog over the last few hundred years (more ranting on this shit when I get around to writing about “The Beautiful and the Damned”). I want to read more literary fiction written by the grown children of the California migrant workers who came into this country in the 80s, and more short stories by Appalachians who made it out of towns spiraling into oblivion, former Oregon tweakers and our very own transplanted Bakersfield Okies. These are people, generally speaking, with little to no support from home, people who don’t want to take the risk of their lives going nowhere after they’ve worked so fucking hard to get out of a shitty situation. They become doctors or high-tech petroleum engineers and they swell the ranks of upper management. In spite of being just as clever and far more interesting than the cookie-cutter East Coast private school kids that seem to dominate the best MFA programs, they aren’t going to take the risk. I’m so much more interested in reading people who were drug addicts because their parents sold meth than people who were art-school drug addicts to get back at Mom for being too distant.

I’m not trying to romanticize poverty or desperate childhood struggles. Those kinds of experiences are born out of legitimate social ills that we, as a country, need urgently address. With that in mind, these kind of narratives are both incredibly powerful and woefully underrepresented. There is a kind of empathy that grows through the shared experience of narrative, and making that experience widely available through good art seems pretty fucking important. I don’t know what changes have to happen to make that a reality. My cynical prediction is that there is absolutely nothing that can be done, no hard changes that can be made to fix this shit. But it isn’t completely hopeless. There seems to be a strong current of disfavor pushing against privileged narratives, demonstrated in everything from television to Reddit memes mocking “first world problems”. If this tide starts pressing into the literary establishment via widespread and deep-seated impatience for pretentious bullshit stories about white American dudes Thinking About Life whilst drinking some local beverage at a super cool place somewhere in Europe that only the locals know about, we might just be OK.

“Fun Home” and aesthetic cohesion (featuring possibly offensive cartoon breasts and implied cartoon cunnilingus)

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’m certainly glad I picked up Fun Home. It had been on my radar for a while, but I had managed to miss picking up a copy, which was rectified via a loan from a friend who was also borrowing it from a friend, (thank you, Megan and Zeke) and so, while we might be clogging up Alison Bechtel’s revenue stream, (although only temporarily, since I plan to get a copy myself when it comes time to re-read) we are definitely supportive in our evangelical zeal to share this thing with the people around us (and in my third parenthetical address of this sentence, I urge you to buy and read this book). Fun Home is a quick but rewarding read, another creation of one of those singular minds that both impress and intimidate me in their ability to not only create simultaneously detailed literary work and vivid visual artistic representation, but to take full advantage of the fact that the same mind is responsible for both and to create that kind of self-like resonance between the two that I always associate with siblings who harmonize their genetically and environmentally similar voices together especially well.

It’s a fantastic book that regales us with a strong sense of story and idea, Bechtel shaping her life via literary devices and narrative structures pulled from the literary canon. The art is simple and perfectly suited to the material, intensely personal. The plot progresses inevitably and perfectly, never leaving us hanging unsupported or jarred and always marching to the foretold conclusion. It’s a simple family story told with the nuance and gradations of impossibly complex reality.

Recommendation: Read this book, unless you are offended by cartoon depictions of breasts and insinuated cunnilingus, like some shithead freshman at Duke apparently is.


Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”

 

I’m becoming a big Vonnegut fan, although I came to him a bit later in life than most. This is the fourth one of his novels I’ve read -it’s been my experience (which has been corroborated by the opinions of others) that his short stories aren’t really worth the time. It will not be my last. I’ve been thinking about how few authors I have read the entire body of works of, and which authors I’d like to put on that list. Kundera is one, as are Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson. The novels of Kurt Vonnegut are under consideration.

“Breakfast of Champions” is one of his best. It’s witty and often upsetting, with the kind of genuinely comic darkness that tends to bleed out of Vonnegut on his best days. Like another personal hero, George Carlin, Vonnegut seems to be looking at the world at a 90 degree angle while we’re all stuck looking at it head-on. His “guidebook-for-alien-observers” narration in this book only brings this out more.

It’s not a remotely challenging read, and “Breakfast of Champions” isn’t breaking through any new ice in 2015, but the challenges and problems of Midland City as it emerges from the 60s haven’t gotten anywhere close to being solved. Vonnegut’s book is still valuable – and not merely as a historical artifact, but as a very relevant and relatable piece of work. Which doesn’t say a lot of good about our progress over the last few years.

Recommendation: Read it! And maybe get his illustration of an asshole tattooed somewhere on your body.

Breakfast of Champions
by Kurt Vonnegut
Powells.com

Charles Burns’ “Black Hole”: Pretty Pictures of Disturbing Shit

Another wonderful comic book, published originally in 12 issues and collected together as a graphic novel in 2005. Like David Mazzucchelli (the man behind “Asterios Polyp”) Burns is both the writer and the artist, the sole creative entity. The art here is stark -full of heavy black color that frames the empty white space into meaning in a manner reminiscent of woodcuts- and since the subject matter is so wonderfully time-stamped in the 1970s, the effect creates a wonderful kind of juxtaposition. The artistic style is far more uniform and consistent than the wandering, narrative imaginings of Mazzucchelli, (with the exception of a few fantastic full-page spreads of fantastic landscapes of detritus and evolutionary misadventures) but they work well both as a narrative accompaniment and on their own aesthetic merit.

The story is compelling and the characters trace an interesting arc of development in this short read. These teens are actually teens, stunted and unformed in equal measure as they try to navigate the kind of social interactions that have adult consequences with minds that lack the experiential context for such an attempt. And no one is irritatingly precocious. This everyman literalism makes “Black Hole” a more immediate and emotionally potent read.

But Black Hole only made me think while I was reading it. There were none of the sticky ideas, the dense informational memes that resurrected themselves out of everyday experiential triggers, slipping into unrelated conversations or driving themselves to the front of my mind while I cooked potatoes. It’s a very good comic book, but it just doesn’t transcend the genre in the same way that personal favorites like “MAUS,” “Asterios Polyp,” and “Watchmen” do.   Burns done a damn fine job with the thing and it’s a wonderful read, but it probably won’t change your life if you read it as an adult.

Recommendation: Read it. It’s short, meaningful, and utterly engaging. Have fun.

Black Hole
by Charles Burns
Powells.com