“What is your secret book?” Alexandra Grant asks the assembled audience. “Everyone has one.” This was in response to a question from the evening’s moderator, as to how and why she as an artist and actor Keanu Reeves came to be partners in the limited-run indie publishing company, X Artists’ Books, XAB for short. They, along with author Sylvan Oswald, gathered under the aegis of the PEN USA Center to present their project and celebrate its newest title, Oswald’s High Winds. It’s the last in what may be the only four titles they’ll present. As of now it’s unclear if they have another one in mind; when they undertook the task, they had four, and that was supposed to be that. But considering the critical and even popular (for arcane avant-garde literary art projects at least) acclaim, and that one of their mantras is “honoring the compulsion to create,” it seems likely we will hear from them again before too long. [Read more…]
The spirit of an age is best captured in the artistic visions inspired by the times. This rings true in both the visual and literary arts. The Middle East has been the center of the world situation for so long that in the West we cannot think of the region without evoking words such as “crisis” and “war.” Since 2001 the region has experienced the crucible of foreign occupation, the eruption of revolutions and civil wars. But from the fire is emerging a new generation of authors grappling with the collapse and reshaping of their region via some of the most impressive literature being produced in the world today. A renaissance in Middle East fiction is upon us, and like the Latin Boom of the 1960s, it is literature magical in its creativity and haunting in its statements. Just published for the first time in English is one of this movement’s great achievements, Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi. [Read more…]
Life? or Theatre?
by Charlotte Salomon
Overlook Duckworth, 815 pp., $150.00
Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?: A Selection of 450 Gouaches
Taschen, 599 pp., $35.00
A woman walks down the red stairs of a tall roofless building. Her dress is almost black. Her hair is pulled back, her arms crossed against the cold, her face melancholy. She walks past denuded trees up a darkened street, curves into another, and another. The wind seems to be propelling her, tugging at her, so that at one point her hair tumbles free, her dress whirls. Lamplight turns pavement and road a stormy sea blue. As she comes closer her path is outlined in blood red, until red takes her over to transform her into a drowning figure in a blackened lake. [Read more…]
The Artist, The Censor, and The Nude: A Tale of Morality and Appropriation By Glenn Harcourt DoppelHouse Press. 190 pp. $34.95
by Glenn Harcourt
Of all the topographies that exist in the world, that of the human body is perhaps the one that has been the most relentlessly contested – both the actual body comprising flesh and blood, and the virtual body as it is written and visualized in representation. This is true of the body both male and female, and of the body both clothed and unclothed. Issues of personal and cultural identity; of sexual and theological politics; of religious and political ideology are all articulated in terms of the body and its represented image. The body as it is lived and pictured serves both to instantiate and to adjudicate cultural norms and to facilitate their transgression.
Thus it is that both the body and its image have come to be censored, at various places and times, and under many cultural regimes. That censorship has certainly been a fact in post-Revolutionary Iran, where laws governing the dressing, adornment, and deportment of the physical body, as well as the body’s image in cultural production have been continuously in place, if at times somewhat erratically enforced. [Read more…]
“I am me again, exactly as I am not.” — Bernardo Soares, a.k.a. Fernando Pessoa
If the Portugese writer, Fernando Pessoa, would not have existed, he would have created himself, if only to negate and deconstruct the existence of a writer named Fernando Pessoa. As an invisible spokesperson for identity crisis, and forger of multiplicities, Pessoa had up to 136 alter-egos, what he called his “heteronyms,” about which he said, “They are beings with a sort-of-life-of-their-own, with feelings I do not have, and opinions I do not accept. While their writings are not mine, they do also happen to be mine.” These heteronyms existed in a Pessoa-spawned universe in which their lives sometimes overlapped, i.e., the criticism and translation of one-another’s work, and it wasn’t until 1982 that the bible of that universe, The Book of Disquiet, was first published. Originating as a fragmentary series of impressions, speculations, reveries, distillations and dream-speak, Pessoa’s unending work-in-progress was unified into the book he one day hoped it would become…forty-seven years after his death. Which makes a passage like this one all the more achingly poignant: “I sometimes think with sad pleasure that if, one day in a future to which I will not belong, these sentences I write should meet with praise, I will at last have found people who ‘understand’ me, my own people, a real family to be born into and to be loved by. But far from being born into that family, I will have been long dead by then. I will be understood only in effigy, and then affection can no longer compensate the dead person for the lack of love he felt when alive.” [Read more…]
Hunter of Stories
by Eduador Galeano
Nation Books, 272pp. $26.
Eduardo Galeano taught me where my parents came from. Always more historian than novelist, or commentator as chronicler, the Uruguayan maestro’s work was one whole mosaic framing the Latin American experience from conquest to capitalist modernism. Galeano, who shed his mortal coil in 2015, was the modern artist of the vignette, telling history in snapshots. I first read him as a young student when a mentor recommended his classic Open Veins of Latin America, an eloquent history of the economic and social history of the region, told with a journalist’s precision and novelist’s sense of language. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez famously gave a copy of the book to Barack Obama during a summit in 2009, and I still sadly suspect that Obama didn’t bother to read it. [Read more…]
Other animals use tools, but as far as I know, we’re the only ones to make paintbrushes. Painting is a physical thing, like sports or ballet. There are important exceptions, of course, like Wade Guyton and his followers, who use computers, scanners, and inkjet printers to make paintings, but for anyone not placing a heavy bet on digital tech, how one grips the brush matters, as does each finely calibrated aspect in the chain of command from brain to canvas: the size and shape of the brush, the viscosity of the paint, and the pressure exerted by the shoulder-arm-hand continuum, its direction and velocity. That’s what painting is on a physical level: brush hitting canvas. It’s been going on for a long time because the way it links perception with action intersects with something elemental about humans. Painting is no more passé than drumming or, for that matter, pole-vaulting, which is not to say that we all need to do it, or can. [Read more…]
The Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
NYRB Classics. 192pp. $14.95
From December 2017, Harper’s Magazine
When you consider the savagery of your run-of-the-mill fairy tale, our use of the term to connote “romance” or “idealization” smacks of nothing more than romance and idealization — a semantic circle of willful delusion. Take “The Juniper Tree,” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. A woman longs for a child, gets pregnant, gives birth to a son, and dies. The father remarries. One day, while the little boy has his head in a chest filled with apples, his stepmother slams down the lid, decapitating him. “Maybe I can get out of this,” she thinks. She ties the boy’s head back on with a scarf, convinces her daughter that she killed him, and cooks him into a stew. The truth comes out when a bird, channeling the boy’s spirit, crushes the stepmother with a millstone. It’s gruesome. But the story’s most grotesque feature is this mild sentence about the first wife: “Then she had a child as white as snow and as red as blood, and when she saw it, she was so happy that she died.” [Read more…]
God: A Human History
by Reza Aslan
Illustrated. Random House. 320pp. $28.
If you’re looking for some kind of Cartesian logic knot that offers proof of whether God exists or not, this is not the book for you. [Spoiler alert: No one knows for sure.] But if you are a curious-minded folkorist, either secular or believing, with a literary taste for the intersection of science and mythology, physiology and faith, politics and cosmology — then it’s a page-turner. As books about religion go, it’s profoundly unlikely to spark heated debate. Instead, it takes a simple strategy of inversion — the premise that we made God (every version ever) in the image of ourselves, and not the other way around. Not because God does or doesn’t exist or needs to be invented — but rather, because our species has instinctual need to give the abstract concept of our gods an appearance, important symbols, and physical forms, the better to comprehend, explain, and worship them. [Read more…]
One of the benefits of living in New York City is that on any night of the week you can find a decent film to see on something other than the tiny screen of your laptop and in something other than a sprawling, suburban multiplex. Thanks, in part, to longstanding institutions, such as Anthology Film Archives and Film Forum, or upstarts, such as Metrograph and the newly remodeled Quad Cinema, cinematic culture survives, even thrives, here in a way that is increasingly impossible to find anywhere else. And it is a good thing, too, because the apartments are small and overpriced, the subways are irregular and overcrowded, and the pizza, dare I say it, is overrated. Something has to make up for the daily struggle. [Read more…]
“Baby . . . I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” — Bukowski, Factotum
As a bottom-feeding, hardscrabble Walt Whitman, Bukowski sang of himself, incessantly, with a volcanic chip on his shoulder. He was determined to be heard, recognized, affirmed—Charles Bukowski Wuz Here stamped on Eternity’s forehead. He coerced you to see life as a cruel and dirty joke that he was in on, and often felt himself to be the butt of, and he would play the page like a blowsy stand-up comedian with too much acid in his diet. He was a living room Pulcinella with a beer-gut, a literary W.C. Fields tossing water balloons and Molotov cocktails with sardonic glee. [Read more…]
“Just a perfect day/You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else/Someone good.” These lines—sung indifferently over swelling, glam rock strings—are from “Perfect Day,” an achingly gorgeous and brutally honest song by Lou Reed, who died of liver disease four years ago at the age of seventy-one. Some people thought the song was about addiction—how a junkie escaping from reality also feeds on the escape of romance. But the song could also be about how pleasurable, yet impossible, it is to escape from your true self, and about how easy it is to deceive yourself when you’ve disappointed your own expectations. [Read more…]
On view at Matthew Marks, Los Angeles, are a selection of photographs from Nan Goldin’s hypnotic and haunting series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which in its original format is a 48 minute slideshow documenting Goldin’s life in over 700 photographs and 30 songs, the text of which, those songs, acting as the narrative for the “film.”
In her introduction to the book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Goldin writes:
I was eleven when my sister committed suicide. This was in 1965, when teenage suicide was a taboo subject. I was very close to my sister and aware of some of the forces that led her to choose suicide. I saw the role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction. [Read more…]
1964. Richard Avedon and James Baldwin publish their spare yet radical treatise shot through to the arrow’s heart of America and much-adored Americana. Their collection, perhaps even more radically, was titled Nothing Personal, and nothing at the time could have been further from the blood-slaked truth. One can only imagine how so very personal, and how lacerating, these images must have been in the high epoch of Jim Crow, where the unsilenced shot of pistol, the swift stroke of knife, the snap of rope, the strike of skin-crackling fire were the unmitigated and unmediated means of cage-keeping of the day. This fall Taschen will republish a facsimile edition of Nothing Personal, with unpublished photographs and a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als. Als’ introduction is excerpted below. An exhibition of images from Nothing Personal will be on view at Pace Gallery, NYC, from 17 November through 13 January, 2018.
by Richard Avedon and James Baldwin
Introduced by Hilton Als
I am about thirteen years old and my body and mind are carried along by the energy that thinking engenders in me—the nearly phosphorescent ideas and possibilities I find in books, looking at pictures, and whenever I visit a museum. Some of the photo books I covet the most can’t be checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, so, day after day, I duck out of my junior high school, in Crown Heights, and, walking past the Brooklyn Museum, then through the Botanic Garden, I go to look at them in the stacks. [Read more…]
The title story from Denis Johnson’s forthcoming collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which was completed just before his death in May of this year. See Riot Material’s earlier tributes to Denis Johnson here.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
By Denis Johnson
After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we’d enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. These were people we’ve gotten to know a little from Elaine’s volunteer work—nobody from my work, nobody from the ad agency. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we’d ever heard. One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce. Another recalled the pounding of his heart when he suffered a coronary. Tia Jones had become a grandmother at the age of thirty-seven and hoped never again to hear anything so loud as her granddaughter crying in her sixteen-year-old daughter’s arms. Her husband, Ralph, said it hurt his ears whenever his brother opened his mouth in public, because his brother had Tourette’s syndrome and erupted with remarks like “I masturbate! Your penis smells good!” in front of perfect strangers on a bus or during a movie, or even in church. [Read more…]
I, Parrot: A Graphic Novel
Reviewed by John Biscello
“A black-sharded lady keeps me in a parrot cage.”
The power of the black-sharded lady, a cunning saboteur of a shadow-self, resides less as a jailor and more as an illusionist. She creates a phantom cage out of thin air, and conditions one to behave and function as a captive, barred from moving beyond limitations that calcify into tainted gospel. In the new graphic novel I, Parrot, written by Deb Olin Unferth and illustrated by Elizabeth Haidle, cages, both real and metaphysical, play into what is a modern-day fable on survival, fierce love, and the necessity of wing-spreading. Or, as Emily Dickinson so eloquently stated: “Hope” is the thing with feathers. [Read more…]
The phrase “music before counting” comes from Debths, Howe’s new collection of poems. Arriving in her eightieth year, the book pushes forward with fresh experiments in poetic form, while looking back on the whole of her life and career. Concerned with first and last things, with childhood and old age, it is a summing up of what is essential and abiding; and it is also just the opposite, a book of dispersals and vanishings that gives the last word to the illegible and incomplete. [Read more…]
Translated into English by Hester Velmans
Reviewed by Christopher Michno
In Dutch writer Niña Weijers’ debut novel, The Consequences, the story of a young conceptual artist and rising star in the rarified world of international art fairs and blue chip galleries, a portrait emerges of a person who has been on the verge of disappearing into herself from the earliest moments of her life. Through various turns, Weijers explores the question of what it means to be–both as an artist and, in an even more basic sense, as a person–present in one’s skin and one’s own life. [Read more…]
In 1969, Cary Raditz, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, quit his job in advertising and headed to Europe to bum around with his girlfriend. They ended up in Matala, on the island of Crete, where they found a bunch of hippies living in a network of caves. Raditz soon decamped for Afghanistan in a VW bus; when he returned, his girlfriend had bailed, but there was word that a new girl was headed to Matala. Raditz didn’t know much about Joni Mitchell, but “there was buzz” among the hippies, and, soon enough, he found himself watching the sunset with one of the most extraordinary people alive. Raditz and Mitchell shared a cave for a couple of months, travelled around Greece together, and parted ways. That’s where you and I come in, because Mitchell wrote two songs, among her greatest works, about her “redneck on a Grecian isle”: “California” and “Carey.” I’ve been singing along to those songs, or trying to, since I was fifteen. I learned from them what you learn from all of Mitchell’s music, that love is a form of reciprocity, at times even a barter economy: “He gave me back my smile / but he kept my camera to sell.” Mitchell’s songs were the final, clinching trade.
Carey, from Blue
“Strangler Bob” is one of five stories from Denis Johnson’s forthcoming collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which was completed just before his death in May of this year. See Riot Material’s earlier tributes to Denis Johnson here.
You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and, blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom, gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue. The following Monday, I pled guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious mischief, reduced from felony vehicular theft and resisting arrest because—well, because all this occurs on another planet, the planet of Thanksgiving, 1967. I was eighteen and hadn’t been in too much trouble. I was sentenced to forty-one days. [Read more…]