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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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It’s a great week for Anonymous authors. The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of The Neapolitan novels, pops up on a string of “best fiction of the year” lists. Speculations about the possible authors of an anonymous book skewering Silicon Valley, and featuring elaborate hand drawings of tweets by real VCs, are running rampant. Two artists—Adrian Tomine and Molly Crabapple– draw praise for their books. And two long-time music writers publish revealing new works that add to the canon and lore of rock ’n’ roll.
Anonymous, Iterating Grace: Heartfelt Wisdom & Disruptive Truths from Silicon Valley’s Top Venture Capitalists
Koons Crooks is “an inexhaustible foot soldier of the first dot-com boom,” who keeps coming back for more: “Start-ups, he realized, were a kind of spiritual exercise.” His body is found near a Bolivian volcano called Uturuncu. This artfully assembled hand-drawn, limited edition, intriguingly anonymous book project was sent to a select group of tech writers and venture capitalists this summer. This week Sean McDonald publishes it as an FSG original. The search for its authors continues, with speculators suggesting Dave Eggers (and/or his McSweeney’s publishing arm), Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, San Francisco Writers’ Grotto cofounder Po Bronson, among others. (One Grotto member speculates the two authors include an illustrator, possibly widely published Wendy McNaughton, whose style resembles the hand-drawn tweets.
Back in June, Alexis Madrigal (Fusion) wrote the first two pieces about the anonymous “artifact,” after he received a copy (one of 140) by secret delivery to his house. He describes it as a “2,001-word story interspersed with hand-drawn recreations of tweets by venture capitalists and startup people like Chris Sacca, Paul Graham, Brad Feld, Sam Altman, and others.” It is, he writes, “just a perfect little skewering of the current moment.”
“The question of who wrote the book, and why, is still eating away at some tech industry insiders and could soon be confounding a much wider audience,” writes Alexandra Alter (New York Times).
Charley Locke (Wired) traces the book’s road to publication, and notes, “The book itself is a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the blind worship of the tech elite, littered with insider references: Koons Crooks shouts commands at his dog in Unix, an operating system popular in the 1980s. He wears a fleece vest from Pixelon, a startup that went bankrupt in 2000. He’s ‘fully post-meal,’ surviving on frozen snack food. But by omitting their real names, the authors have taken their parody of Silicon Valley’s self-adulation one step further…” Locke also chats with Elena Ferrante’s publisher, Michael Reynolds at Europa about authors who maintain anonymity (“an unlikely social media tool”).
Molly Crabapple, Drawing Blood
Crabapple unveils the process that led to her life as an award winning artist, journalist, crusader and one-time Tumbleweed at Paris’s Shakespeare and Company. We’re paying attention because, well, she knows how to be riveting.
Brian Castner (The Daily Beast) calls Drawing Blood “a remarkable read, dripping in old-fashioned sex, drugs, and rock and roll. No, not the mud-caked Woodstock version. Go back further, to the cabaret of Moulin Rogue. For the uninitiated, the book is a peek behind the dressing room curtain. For her established fans, it’s a rewarding creation story, the tale of how Jennifer Caban, a shy and shame-filled Puerto Rican-Jewish girl from Queens, became Molly Crabapple: empowered sex-positive feminist, resident-artist of a worldwide movement, and producer of murals that have been compared to Diego Rivera, Bruegel the Elder, and Cirque du Soleil.” Castner concludes that Crabapple’s memoir might be “the sexiest thing you read this year.”
“Celebrated New York journalist Crabapple is also one of America’s best, most original artists,” notes Michael Schaub (Men’s Journal).
“The book reads like a notebook of New York, a cultural history of a certain set,” writes Deb Olin Unferth (New York Times Book Review). “Filtered through her eyes, we see 9/11, the excesses of the aughts boom, the aftermath of the crash, Occupy Wall Street, Hurricane Sandy and onward. But what makes the book captivating and sets it apart from other descriptions of these much-reported events is how it is essentially one long glorious description of what Crabapple drew and why she drew it.”
“What will she do next?”Unferth asks. “At 32 Crabapple is a lion for her own cause — ferocious and feminist, hardworking and weepy — a new model for this century’s young woman. Her next creations, whatever they are, will surely be urgent, celebratory and livid. We can’t wait.”
Adrian Tomine, Killing and Dying
The New Yorker artist with the long-running Optic Nerve cartoon series, gets respect from critics for his short story collection.
Killing and Dying is named one of Slate’s “10 Best Comics of 2015.” Jacob Brogan writes, “Tomine is a master of the unsaid. Nowhere is this truer than in the titular short story in this new collection, which unspools around the silence of cancer, a word we never hear and a condition from which there is no escape. Unapologetically raw, these always finely rendered—and often enormously moving—narratives find Tomine at the peak of his powers.”
It’s also on the Washington Post’s list of “Best Graphic Novels of 2015.” “The thematic whole, all rendered in his clean line and clear voice, is a movable feast for the senses,” writes Michael Cavna.
A.O. Scott (New York Times Book Review) is enthusiastic: “These tales — pocket epics of romantic, creative and social frustration set in recognizably drab, drably picturesque American landscapes — certainly invite comparison to the work of words-only short-form masters like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Mary Gaitskill, and for that matter O. Henry himself. You can almost forget you’re looking at drawings.”
So is John McMurtrie (San Francisco Chronicle), who writes, “Tomine’s illustrated stories are as profound as any number of traditional short stories. The characters are hardly caricatures; their lives are messy, scattered with minefields, yet they’re trying not to give up hope. And their fates are left to our imagination.”
Greil Marcus, Real Life Rock and Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations
It’s been a big year for cultural historian and music critic Greil Marcus. His seminal 1975 Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music was reissued (he talked to Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone about the updates in the sixth edition). And this fall saw publication of his Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986–2014 and a third volume, based on his lectures at Harvard about “three commonplace, seemingly authorless songs as bedrock, founding documents of American identity”—Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” Catnip.
“Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations is elegant and focused,” writes Robert Loss (Los Angeles Review of Books). “Real Life Rock sprawls and rejoices and bitches and moans depending on what’s happening in the world. And yet each book examines the commonplace as a subject and a way of being, as a language anyone might use and a way of listening that’s true to ordinary life and all its plainness, order, customs, and moments of the unexpected.”
Loss analyzes Marcus’s style—“devoid of the miserable cant of academe, politics, the corporate world, and the internet” and concludes, “But it’s the perspective that, in the end, matters more than the style — a point of view that’s eclectic but unafraid to make judgments, that exists outside the oppression of taste if not taste as such, that carves out a space between the social and the individual, the public and the private, an everyday space where the art of popular music is still possible, where art is the possible.”
David Cantwell (The New Yorker) calls Marcus’s “willingness to be fooled” his “critical super power.”
His signature move is to find himself propelled, by a song’s unexpected shift in tone, by the delivery of a line or maybe even just a word, or by some unexpected cultural resonance to a famous or obscure historical event, into a newly charged landscape where everything is at stake. His long, layered sentences propel us along with him and can leave us feeling swept up, too. Later, if we listen to the record Marcus was describing—something by the Mekons, say, one of his favorite bands, or by Bob Dylan or Randy Newman—we may decide his claims don’t entirely pay off, not always. But how could they? Perhaps the best criticism requires not only a willingness to be fooled but also a readership just as eager to be caught up in the critic’s enthusiasm. Tailing Marcus as he risks foolishness, as he picks his way through the confusions and eurekas of some previously secret trace, is always worthwhile, whether the path is discovered or merely imagined.
Peter Guralnick, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll
His long-time association with Phillips, who discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and other music legends, underpins Guralnick’s book.
Guralnick’s biography finally gives us “lucid answers to the not inconsequential questions of how and why Sam Phillips led an ad hoc assemblage of unknown and untested poor young musicians to combine the sounds of blues and country music, harnessing a raw carnality to make what would become known as rock ’n’ roll,” writes David Hajdu (New York Times Book Review).
“This is a book written out of admiration and love,” Guralnick states frankly in an author’s note. As such, it honors Sam Phillips elegantly, by devoting itself to the one subject Phillips seemed to admire and love as much as he did music: Sam Phillips himself.
“Longtime music writer Guralnick writes long,” warns Curt Schleier (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) “He also likes jarring colloquialisms, suddenly addressing readers directly and using curse words. The author knew Phillips and worked with and interviewed him in the past. That firsthand knowledge results in a biography that — while occasionally exhausting in length — is almost always compelling and even revelatory to those who thought they knew it all.”