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A Staggering Array of Folk Art, and Other News

June 14, 2016 | by

An elephant pull toy from 1830–80, on display now at the New-York Historical Society. Image via The New York Review of Books.

  • When I’m on the job, I use periods in my writing all the time. They’re part of the buttoned-up, G-rated approachability that makes me such an asset to office culture. But when I’m off duty, you better believe the periods are the first thing to go, am I right? As Jeff Guo has noticed, “The period is no longer how we finish our sentences. In texts and online chats, it has been replaced by the simple line break … The modern line break is like the medieval punctus—an all-purpose piece of punctuation that inserts pauses wherever we’re feeling it. And the period has gained expressive powers after it was laid off from its job marking the ends of sentences. Now it’s an icy flourish we deploy against frenemies and exes. We should celebrate these developments. Writing is becoming richer. This is an exciting time. Period.”
  • And in German-Turkish relations, grammar is playing a pivotal diplomatic role: “With impressive courage, a hip-hop band called Einshoch6 left their native Munich to keep a longstanding date on June 4 and, as one of them modestly put it, ‘set Ankara on fire’ with a concert and teach-in. Young Turkish German-learners took lessons in how to turn tongue-twisting Teutonic sounds into the verbal pyrotechnics of rap. Their trademark is combining rap vocals with classical instruments (or electronic versions of those instruments) and strong percussion … Along with their own exuberant, random ravings they have experimented with rap versions of the poetry of Goethe, and their whole output is an unlikely by-product of the intense classical-music culture of south Germany. But they send out a message that mastering compound verbs and case-endings needn’t be done with a long, studious face.”
  • Hey, kid. Wanna get into the picture business? Don’t go to Tinseltown. It’s for chumps and floozies. Get yourself a one-way ticket to Marrakesh: “Morocco shares many of the advantages that first drew filmmakers to California: year-round sunshine, diverse landscapes, great old architecture and abundant available extras. Just recently Morocco and Britain signed a treaty giving each other reciprocal tax subsidies for film and television production. And since the UK and Morocco are in the same time zone, they keep the same business hours. My fascination with film was kindled in the New York editorial offices of a literary magazine, The Paris Review. My then boss, George Plimpton, recounted over lunch one day an adventure he had had long before—one of his stunts in participatory journalism—when he shipped off to Morocco to play a Bedouin extra on the set of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.”
  • Because your year in the arts isn’t truly complete until you’ve seen an old elephant pull toy in the same building as a roach motel, visit the New-York Historical Society, where a new exhibition features folk art from the collection of Elie Nadelman: “The more than two hundred objects on display range from clipper ship figureheads (‘It was not just a sailor who carved this but an artist,’ Nadelman remarked of a ravishing gilded eagle with detachable wings) to miniature carved animals, amid a trove of carefully selected pottery, exquisitely detailed needle-cases, and an early, ingenious earthenware roach motel—the glazed, funnel-shaped opening of which traps roaches lured inside by molasses. This staggering array of material is complemented by a dozen or so of Nadelman’s wondrous figurative sculptures, fashioned in weathered cherry or mahogany and often given an overlay of seemingly aging paint.”
  • In writing a book about indentured servitude in British Guiana, Gaiutra Bahadur faced a major research dilemma: no firsthand accounts existed by women. “Since indentured women were, for the most part, illiterate, they didn’t leave behind written traces of themselves. Just as there isn’t a single existing narrative from a woman or girl who survived the Middle Passage, the rare first-person accounts of indenture—there are three—are all by men. The stealing of the voices of indentured women, born into the wrong class, race and gender to write themselves into history, was structural. How could I write about women whose very existence the official sources barely acknowledged? To enter their unknown and to some extent unknowable history, I had to turn to alternative, unofficial sources. I looked for clues in visual traces and the oral tradition: folk songs, oral histories, photographs and colonial-era postcards, even a traditional tattoo on the forearms of elderly Indo-Caribbean women.”

The Language of the Cockpit, and Other News

June 13, 2016 | by

From a vintage Trans World Airlines ad.

  • In the grim aftermath of the tragedy in Orlando, Richard Kim pays tribute to gay bars as institutions: “My first gay bar was Crowbar. Like all great gay bars, Crowbar was a dump: dark, low-ceilinged, shitty sound system. It was off Tompkins Square Park and Avenue B, when Tompkins Square Park was still a place you’d go to to buy drugs. It smelled like mildew, urine, cheap vodka, and Designer Imposters body spray. It’s long gone—made extinct like too many wonders by gentrification and Giuliani—but for a hot moment in the ’90s, it was the single most fabulous place in the galaxy. Dance moves were invented there. People went in, and when they came out, they weren’t just drunk—they were different people. That’s how powerful its juju was … Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression.”
  • They made a movie about Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe, and they called it Genius? Oh, this can’t miss! Except that the film “depicts creation via furious montage. Tom stands at the refrigerator scribbling. Max jabs and plucks at pages of typescript. Bourbon and martinis are consumed. Cigarettes are smoked. Women come and go … Genius sighs with palpable nostalgia for a supposed golden age of masculine artistic potency and paints the struggle for self-expression in familiar sentimental colors. For Tom, writing is the unbridled expression of the life force, something [Jude] Law indicates by hollering and gesticulating and allowing a stray lock of hair to fall just so across his brow.”

Of Milan and Miniskirts, and Other News

June 10, 2016 | by

Valentina Rosselli in Nessuno. Photo courtesy Scott Eder Gallery, via Hyperallergic

  • Fun pretentious dinner-party trick: ask if anyone has read Byron’s memoirs and mock anyone who answers in the affirmative, because those memoirs don’t exist, duh. “Byron’s memoirs—which might have finally provided the ‘truth’ about his life—were destroyed soon after his death. The story goes that three of his closest friends (his publisher, John Murray; his fellow celebrity poet, Thomas Moore; and his companion since his Cambridge days, John Cam Hobhouse), together with lawyers representing Byron’s half-sister and his widow, decided that the manuscript was so scandalous, so unsuitable for public consumption, that it would ruin Byron’s reputation forever. Gathered in Murray’s drawing room in Albemarle Street, they ripped up the pages and tossed them into the fire. The incident is often described as the greatest crime in literary ­history. It has certainly served to fuel curiosity and conjecture about Byron’s personal life for another couple of centuries. What was the damning secret his friends needed to protect? Domestic abuse? Sodomy? Incest? Probably all three, we imagine.”

They Call It “Photography,” and Other News

June 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Adolphe Braun

  • In the seventies, Barbara Williamson founded the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research, “a nudist community that promoted personal freedom through open marriage and group-sex parties.” She became known as “the most liberated woman in America,” but in 1975 the foundation closed for good and Williamson, leery of the Reaganism to come, dropped off the map. Now Alex Mar has paid her a visit and found that she’s raising big cats: “Barbara asks me to choose from the boxes of tea in the open cupboard—‘Lemon ginger? Green? Chamomile?’—as the lynx has rounded the corner from the living room and is now trailing me from one counter to the next. She is making a sound that’s unmistakable, even to someone who has never before spent time with an exotic cat. A deep, low, insistent growl … Barbara shoos the lynx away, but the animal does not listen.”
  • I love book reviews, but sometimes they’re just so long—so subtle! Some parts of the book are good, some parts are bad, some parts kind of depend, blah, blah … It’s like, why don’t you just give the book a fucking letter grade and be done with it, so I can pursue my reading life with the standards of a Consumer Reports subscriber? Fortunately, Book Marks is here, the new “Rotten Tomatoes of Books” that assigns every book a grade. The only problem: every book passes with flying colors. Alex Shephard writes, “Nearly all of the more than 100 books graded by Book Marks seem to be worth reading, which renders it somewhat useless as a recommendation resource … If it is doing exactly what it was designed to do—reflecting the current state of literary criticism—then the real problem is that literary criticism, like America’s universities, is suffering from severe grade inflation.”
  • In London, a new show, “Seizing the Light: Photography in the Age of Invention,” gathers some of the earliest examples of photography from the nineteenth century, when “pioneers began to document the world around them with unprecedented accuracy … [Prince Albert] and Queen Victoria, who had a darkroom in Windsor Castle, were early photography enthusiasts … As well as portraits of Pope Pius IX and Franz Liszt, Adolphe Braun made Alpine and Alsatian landscapes, and specialized in carbon print reproductions.”

Finally, a Phone Book on CDs, and Other News

June 8, 2016 | by

Photo: Museum of Intellectual Property

  • As the Soviet Union fades into the rearview mirror, it’s becoming harder to find reliable, intimate accounts of life in the USSR. A new graphic novel is trying to change that: “The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. ‘Word by word I listen to the account of an existence that has become an undigested mass,’ he writes, at the beginning of one section. ‘It pushes its way out from the gut. The following is a faithful transcription of that story’ … These phrases sum up everything that is good and everything that is not so good about The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule … The translation, sadly, is often tone-deaf and downright sloppy—the peculiarly unappetizing language in this passage is just one example. But the stories he has collected are indeed an undigested mass, often a mess, and this is a good thing.”

At Once Document and Symbol, and Other News

June 7, 2016 | by

Gordon Parks, Emerging Man, Harlem, New York, 1952, black-and-white photograph. Photo via The New Yorker

  • Today is Prince’s birthday—the Minnesota governor has declared it Prince Day, and I’m wearing my Purple Rain T-shirt. “The Morning Papers,” a collection at Media Diversified, invites writers of color and Prince devotees to reflect on his legacy. Tanuja Desai Hidier, who was many moons ago an intern at the Review, remembers him in the poem “Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi woh Purple barsaat ki raat”: “Pulsing purple Om. / Love symbol. Id. / Strumming us home: / A compass. The Kid.” And in “Camille Ain’t Dead, Honey,” Gemma Weekes mulls on his death: “We remembered all his talk about the Spooky Electric. Some of us thought The Kid was irresponsible and that the Spooky Electric was a train he’d jumped on in the middle of the night, taking him off to some traitorous adventure elsewhere. He’d not read section 3, passage 33 of the Town Rules that stipulated he choose a successor before quitting city limits … A growing percentage theorized that The Spooky Electric was a It wanted his light. It wanted to stop his light from spreading, so The Kid was kidnapped, or scrubbed free of glitter and buried under a thousand layers of darkness.”
  • In which Diana Hamilton embarks on a journey to define “fictional poetry”: “I realized I had never been writing about ‘postconceptual poetry’ at all, but about something I started to call ‘Fictional Poetry’—i.e., poetry that uses the style, plot, characterization, or forms of fiction … Key to this sense of the ‘fictional’ is a quality of aboutness that prevents overemphasis on form—and on the repetition of the forms that often characterizes the appearance of schools—and especially resists the belief that the shape a poem takes, rather than its ‘topic,’ is always the source of its politics / interestingness / literariness / purpose. Instead, the books I want to write about don’t mind being about things … A lot of contemporary poetry does not deal very directly with its ‘content’; or rather, it seems contentless. Most things that pass for poems today are list poems without knowing it: by trying to focus on the lyrical image’s mediation of reference, they become mere collections of images that pride themselves on their irrelevance.”