New Yorker Cover Stirs Controversy

July 30th, 2008 at 8:47 am

I am outraged by the most recent New Yorker cover.

July 28, 2008 New Yorker Cover

Gutless savages feasting on innocent animals. Torturing them in boiling water. This is water boarding gone bad! Those poor shellfish. You carnivorous cowards! Gargling on your Pinot Grigio, laughing in selfish oblivion like a bunch of demented beasts in a Ralph Steadman drawing. If only he had visited a clambake instead of the Kentucky Derby! Or a crawfish boil! Fish Fry!

What does the New Yorker think it is with this pretentious, caddy New England humor? Will next week bring a culturally relevant pictorial on the satiric elements of clam chowder? And what, no bibs? The Red Lobster should sue your pants off, New Yorker. This kind of glib image is an insult to all that makes America great. And all that makes greatness American.

But what is really offensive about the most recent New Yorker issue is that for the first time that I’ve noticed, they moved the movie criticism before the book criticism. And this after the Los Angeles Times has pulled its stand-alone book reviews in order to slop them in with the detritus of entertainment and home improvement advice.



THE SKEPTIC: A LIFE OF H.L. MENCKEN BY TERRY TEACHOUT

July 28th, 2008 at 6:00 pm

“I never wash my hands after taking a leak. That’s the cleanest part of me.” – H.L. Mencken.

The Skeptic by Terry Teachout

H.L. Mencken was Hunter S. Thompson before Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson.

In fact, I decided to look into this H.L. character upon coming across a passing comment referring to him in Gonzo. HST was a fan. Well, perhaps not a fan, but certainly aware of him, aware of Mencken’s contribution to American letters and therefore an influence and forefather of Thompson’s own potent prose and inimitable personality.

H. L. Mencken paved the road that Hunter S. Thompson came screaming down with his peyote-fueled typewriter of rage and style.

These two men, forefathers of modern journalism, have a lot in common and their similarities illuminate the world they were a part of and criticized so effectively. They were both journalists, columnists, and editors, fierce critics of culture and politics.

As Teachout shares in The Skeptic, “Mencken responded to Prohibition by selling his car and using the proceeds to purchase a large stock of “the best wines and liquors I could find,” stored in a homemade basement vault whose door bore a custom-painted sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones: “This vault is protected by a device releasing Chlorine Gas under 200 pounds pressure. Enter it at your own Risk.” HST would have been proud.

H.L. Mencken gained widespread popularity and exposure with the infamous Scopes trial and HST gained notoriety while covering the ’72 Presidential Campaign. Both men’s success was intimately tied with magazines.

“I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine,” Mencken wrote to William Saroyan in 1936. “I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”

And as all great men seem to be, both H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson were flawed. Mencken was an anti-Semite and Thompson a homophobe.

However useful an introduction to H.L. Mencken Teachout’s biography was, I did find it significantly lacking in two particular arenas.

First of all, it failed to share an adequate amount of Mencken’s own prose. Once the myth and drug-fascination with Hunter S. Thompson has waned, his legacy will be his words. And no matter how intriguing of a character Mencken was in his own right, his heritage seems to be the same. So I wanted more of Mencken’s writing.

Second, Mencken was an important American writer who had a significant influence on modern journalism and I wish Teachout had provided more of an analysis and study of Mencken’s lasting presence in our contemporary era. The closest Teachout got was a mere parenthetical aside: “Had they [conservatives] known of the extent to which his [Mencken] work in the twenties helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the America-hating adversary culture of the sixties, they might have repudiated him altogether.” But this second objection is probably more a manifestation of my own bias and interest in the similarities between Mencken and Thompson.

Though each man harbored intense and undeniable prejudices of the first order, they pursued sham and hypocrisy in all arenas of public life with unflagging diligence. But Mencken, faithfully secular, touched on religion too, which I haven’t come across much by HST on the topic. Did he weigh in on religion ever?

At the end of The Skeptic, Teachout sees in Mencken “a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence.” But Teachout ultimately concludes that Mencken’s relevance and success is not a function of his particular convictions but rather of “the firmly balanced prose rhythms and vigorous diction in which they are couched. It is, in short, a triumph of style.”

The same can be said of HST. Despite HST’s failure to write that great novel, or to extend his initial success any further than the 70s, he lined up words in an order like no one else did. And for that, The Skeptic must be considered a success in that it makes me want to stop reading criticism and biographies of Mencken and instead turn to his books much in the same way that I was wearied by Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise and instead wanted to listen to the music.

As always, it’s best to shut up and listen.



MW by Osamu Tezuka

July 21st, 2008 at 5:45 pm

MW by Osamu Tezuka

MW by Osamu Tezuka is a thoroughly entertaining graphic novel. I just finished it and found it to be quite, quite enjoyable.

Soon after setting down MW, I picked up Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. So I do not yet have an adequate framework to be much more articulate and informed about how and why MW is so good. Yes, I am that confident in Reading Comics that after absorbing its content, I will be forever eloquent and wise on the topic of comic criticism. Even though I have read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which Reading Comics has already taken issue with on a few finer points of comic lore and craft. So it’s sure to be an enjoyable read of comic nerd in-fighting.

How’s that for establishing your form as a legitimate medium? Splinter into competing sects of disagreeing “experts” and engage in petty and nonconstructive debates. Now that’s a classy, established medium! If only we could get Chris Ware and Alan Moore to engage in a widely publicized tiff, a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Then you comic-kazes would know you’ve really arrived.

But back to MW. It’s good. It is.

And don’t just take my word for it. According to the flap copy, Osamu Tezuka is a comic god, the godfather of Japanese manga comics, who spurned his doctor’s degree to pursue the then-considered “frivolous medium” of comics.

The protagonist of MW is a scion of a famous Kabuki family. There’s a secret military cover-up. Finance. Politics. Murder. Rape. WMDs. A public prosecutor. A Catholic priest. And homoeroticism. Don’t forget the homoeroticism. You know how those graphic novelists revel in good old-fashioned sexual obsession.

If you’re looking for even more elements of intrigue combined in a single graphic novel of “sweeping vision, deftly intertwined plots, and indefatigable commitment to human dignity,” I think you’re asking too much. But there’s probably a comic out there for you. Keep looking.

Try starting with Battle Pope.

If one reads McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Wolk’s Reading Comics, The New Yorker’s comics issue, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern all-comics issue 13 edited by Chris Ware, Michael Chabon’s championing of the medium, or even the Best American Comics series, you will be amazed at the indefatigable lengths guardians and cheerleaders of the form go to in order to establish comics as anything but a “frivolous medium.”

Not to discredit the admirable and necessary actions that have thankfully lifted comics out of the doldrums brought on by a prejudice of childish obscurity and pretentious elitism, to me the debate has already been won. Comics are without a doubt, a legitimate artistic craft worthy of serious reading, and as novels go the way of five act plays in iambic pentameter, comics will burgeon into a significantly dominate form of published entertainment. Turn a couple of these graphic novels into video games, and boom, look out Hollywood. Brilliantly talented nerds: 1. Naysayers: 0.

But this leaves me to ponder what fringe form will next emerge to demand the acknowledgment and serious criticism its proponent’s feel it so urgently deserves?

I’ve already mentioned one: video games?
Graffiti?
Tattoos?
Fake memoirs?

I personally want there to be an annual competition for the finest fake memoir awarded to the autobiography that best duped the general public and publishing industry into believing that it was absolutely true. Authors will keep their lips sealed until the submission process in which they can then discreetly admit that, “Oh yeah, I made that all up. Hehe. Clever me.” They could call the competition The Big Get and it could be a legitimate genre that authors set out to execute instead of a highly embarrassing mistake.



The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

July 17th, 2008 at 4:50 pm

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

As a recovering Band Nerd, I assumed that this book, subtitled “Listening to The Twentieth Century,” would be an enjoyable companion to my amateur musical education. I have had the privilege of performing hundreds of renowned musical compositions, from Gershwin to Hindemith, and even conducted several hundred marching musicians playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Attending grade school in Connecticut, I can even remember a relative of Charles Ives visiting our music class and telling us disinterested ankle-biters about her famous composer-relative.

But alas, The Rest is Noise is a book about classical music.

A book. About classical music.

It’s a bit like macramé about kite flying. That is, an obscure, archaic, and largely ignored medium conveying a rather dismissed subject. A quilt about baking contests? Stained glass about some dead dude on a cross? An election to decide world leaders?

Ross does acknowledge that, “Classical music is widely mocked as a stuck-up, sissified, intrinsically un-American pursuit.”

Though critically acclaimed, well enough written, and well researched (the result of 15 years of being a music critic), I found The Rest Is Noise to be rather dull, a bit boring, and overall, a lot of work to read. It’s 543 pages of, “…for example, in The Anaemic Rag chains of thirds unwind over an open-fifth ostinato.” And that’s an example, which is supposed to be an instance serving illustration, but I had no idea what an ostinato was and Word spell check wants ostinato to be “obstinate,” even though ostinato is simply a constantly recurring melodic fragment.

Ross absolutely excels at bringing the music he is talking about to life with evocative and stirring descriptions, but I found myself pleading to just listen to the music itself. I can only hope that they will publish an edition with a supplementary CD so a reader can pause and listen to samples of this music that seems to matter so much. Does the audio edition already have some of the music playing with it? I can only imagine that such an endeavor would be a lawyer’s nightmare with the endless rights and clearances and royalties. (The same problem is why The Wonder Years is not on DVD. All that damn music.)

While the historical context portrayed by The Rest is Noise is enlightening and the composer’s lives that are detailed therein are only mildly interesting, it is the music and the music alone that emerges as worthwhile. So in that, Alex Ross, as a critic, has achieved something great with this book. It makes me want to actually listen to some of this music he talks so damn much about.

Though classical music seems to have been quite full of homosexuals and drugs. Take that Rock and Roll!



Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

July 16th, 2008 at 11:30 am

So I’ve seen it: the latest documentary about author Hunter S. Thompson.

Surprise!

Gonzo The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Directed by Alex Gibney (Best-Documentary-Oscar-Winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron-Smartest Guys in the Room), the HST documentary is called Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson.

Not to be confused with the oral biography, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.

Let’s throw the usual fish in a barrel and shoot them: The book is better. It is far more exhaustive and illuminating, contains a larger cast of characters, and provides a more thorough, telling account of this singular man’s life.

Successful in its own right, Gibney’s documentary focuses on HST’s most significant and productive period of the 60s and 70s with plenty of time spent on his Nixon/Vietnam criticism paralleling the current Bush/Iraq fiasco.

Take plenty of Mescaline before viewing the documentary so as to thwart the nauseous effects provoked by the occasional re-enacted dramatizations. Otherwise, the documentary is thoroughly entertaining and provides a colorful glimpse into this beast’s life with unseen/heard home video and audio tapes. Especially enlightening was the footage of Thompson’s memorial service, in which his remains were fired out of a hundred foot tower capped by a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, and his second wife Anita’s self-shot home video was a bizarre rabbit hole into the final day’s of Thompson’s life.

The end of the documentary strikes a somber note with some of those who knew him best wishing HST was still alive. He was a brutal, talented man, someone deeply needed in these queer times of ours.  His writing following September 11th and up to the Iraq War and his suicide is juxtaposed with recent images that reveal how eerily prescient the Good Doc has been. And always was. And could have still been.

How bad we could use him now.



Obama Terrorist Fist Jabs New Yorker Cover

July 14th, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Barack Obama is my guy.

Understanding that any politician who was perfectly aligned on the issues I value would be unelectable, he’s got my vote.

Understanding that I am in agreement with Hunter S. Thompson when he said, “And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?” Barack is my lesser of two evils in the 2008 election freak show.

A lot can, and has, been said of Obama’s faults. All that rhetoric without substance. All that inexperience. Sure, inexperience. Voting for the inexperienced will get us either a Bill Clinton or a George W. Bush. Not just a double-downer sideshow, but a roulette wheel on a geopolitical scale. With nuclear warheads instead of chips.

And for all of the books I read, I am constantly, stubbornly (call it hope, optimism) flabbergasted by world leader’s oblivion to fundamental devices such as irony.

And so it was with great disappointment that i was dumbfounded by the Obama Camp’s reaction to The New Yorker’s latest cover satirizing the Conservative Right’s ignorant and racist portrayal of Barack Obama and his wife. (Fox News called her a “baby’s mama,” and referred to her preference for bumping fists in casual greeting as a “terrorist fist jab.”)

The New Yorker

I had such high hopes of Obama transcending his predecessors almost-laughable ignorance to things like Irony and Satire. I expected the intolerant, fear-mongering, puritanical evangelical/conservative/right to lash out at such an image, but Obama had to jump right into that mob and declare the cartoon “tasteless and offensive.”

No.

No, I’m sorry Barack Obama Camp (Barack Obama, spokespersons, advisers, gurus, speech writers, strategists, supporters, and the majority of my country who seem to be bothered by this), this is America, we are Americans, and that is just a cartoon. We have weathered The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, South Park, and Beavis and Butthead, and a plethora of bad art and amateurish imitators. We will not get caught up in senseless rioting and murder over a cartoon. We understand art and we understand things like irony and satire and sarcasm and The Freedom of Speech!

We have values, we have ethics, and we will stand up for what we believe in. But this? This is a cartoon! There are many tasteless things out there to be offended about, but this is just not one of them.

Shame on you Mr. Obama for such a crude and misguided response. Stop pandering! Stop groveling to the center!

I may have to vote for Ralph Nader.



Unseen Kafka Documents Metamorphose into Literary Limelight

July 10th, 2008 at 2:26 pm

So Franz Kafka. We all read The Metamorphosis in high school.

He also wrote The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle.

I’m reading The Castle right now so this caught my eye: the secretary of Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, recently died and now experts will be able to examine documents of Kafka’s that the secretary had refused to share with the world.

These papers of Kafka had just been gathering dust as this secretary had “doggedly refused” to share them.

Why did she refuse to share them? And why doggedly? The literary community is on the seat of its chinos. There must be something juicy in them thare parchments!

But wait.

“The authorities have warned that the damp in [the secretary's] flat and the hoards of dogs and cats she kept may have damaged or even destroyed the papers.”

What?

Gross.

Good luck to whatever graduate student or museum intern charged with this task.

No thanks.

I have been enjoying The Castle very much, thank you, despite the fact that Kafka died with the manuscript ending mid-sentence and Max Brod finishing it. These damp, moldy, urine and shit-soaked documents may provide insight into Kafka’s literary intent, but who’s to say?

The grad student in the haz mat suit with tongs. That’s who.

I told you reading is sexy. When the pages aren’t saturated with cat scat.



When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

July 2nd, 2008 at 5:48 pm

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Eh.

That’s my review: eh.

With maybe a shoulder shrug.

Someone better read than I recently remarked something to the effect of, “Once you’ve read one David Sedaris book, haven’t you read them all?”

Yes.

And Kurt Vonnegut.

And several others. But that’s neither here nor there.

Sedaris’s recent book makes such a dismissive comment truer than ever. For readers familiar with Holidays on Ice, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Me Talk Pretty One Day, there is little Funny and Original to enjoy from When You Are Engulfed in Flames. And especially for readers of The New Yorker like myself, where most of the essays in this publication were initially published, there is a lot to be desired.

A few highlights include an explanation for why Sedaris does not believe in God: “Because I have hair on my back, and a lot of other people, people who kill and rob and make life miserable, don’t. A real God wouldn’t let that happen.” And his prediction that, “It’s safe to assume that by 2025, guns will be sold in vending machines, but you won’t be able to smoke anywhere in America.” With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on D.C’s gun ban, Sedaris’s prescience is foreboding.

But what I found most interesting about When You Are Engulfed in Flames was the About the Author: “David Sedaris’s half-dozen books have been translated into twenty-five languages, including Estonian, Greek, and Bahasa. His essays appear frequently in The New Yorker and are heard on Public Radio International’s This American Life.”

It was the first sentence that intrigued me. There’s a good David Sedaris essay to be had from that line. Did David Sedaris himself write it? If not, but the editor did, why the importance on Estonian, Greek, and Bahasa and not the other 22 languages? Does translation into these three languages indicate a literary achievement of some sort? Is it a big deal for Estonians, Greeks, and Indonesians to be reading David Sedaris? While Microsoft Word’s spell check wants Bahasa to be Bahamas, Bahaman, Batas, Balas, or Banana, Bahasa is in fact spelled correctly. It is the native language of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, and therefore one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. So for David Sedaris to be available in this language is no small feat. Why then Estonian and Greek? And what are the other 22 neglected languages? Why are they less special?