Monday, February 6, 2017

some stuff I read this week

Over the last however many years I've noticed that I read fewer and fewer books, mainly because I read too much internet. Since the internet is absolutely bonkers right now, which feels like a lot on top of my own personal freakout about everything that's going on, it seems like a good time to focus more on on "real" reading. After giving it some thought I'm setting a little goal for myself to read one non-work book a week, plus one issue in my hoarder pile of New Yorkers. Not impressive, but respectable. I will almost certainly fail.

How many books do normal people read? Normal isn't the right word...I guess I'm really wondering how many books readers read. Curious, I googled around a little and found a Pew study where the line of demarcation was did you read a book last year, or not. One book. Then I saw a Gallup thing where the highest echelon of readers was 11 books/year or more. I definitely read more than that, but I still feel as though I read less than everyone I know?

The idea is that I'll post here on Sundays about whatever book I read, plus anything else that really struck me over the course of the week. And if you'd like to leave a comment about something you read last week, why, I'd like that very much.

Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi
His new collection of stuff on the 2016 election. I had to read it for work, though I probably would have picked it up on my own (maybe with a little more distance, though). Last year I read some of this stuff in real time, but it's definitely worth revisiting in one big batch. Taking it in this way, my feeling was while the quality of thought was consistently high, I found the writing a bit more uneven than I remembered. Maybe the pieces I had read before were the ones that people circulated most, and therefore the best ones? I don't know, there's this thing I find where that stuff I've read on the Internet collected as a book usually disappoint me. I felt the same way about Samantha Irby's Meaty and Allie Brosch's book a few years back. Those I have some theories as to what went wrong, but I'm less sure what's going on here here. What do I know, Matt Taibbi at his absolute worst is better than anything I'll ever write. Except for, like, there are a couple of chapters in here that are drinking games? Those were pretty bad.

Neither here nor there, but I had somehow never put together or possibly forgot that Taibbi was the guy in charge of Racket. Haha, remember that? Also he's apparently on Bill Maher a lot. Quick question, is Matt Taibbi a nightmare person? I realized when I was working on this book that I don't know much about his persona. Here's an anecdote I just found in his wikipedia:
Journalist James Verini, while interviewing Taibbi in a Manhattan restaurant for Vanity Fair, said Taibbi cursed and threw a coffee at him, then accosted him as he tried to get away, all in response to Verini's volunteered opinion that Taibbi's book, The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, was "redundant and discursive".
I think this makes me like him more. Back on track.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This guy was the brother-in-law of a blogger who I've been reading forever, and I'm not too proud to admit that I cried bitter tears when she posted about his death in 2015, and then again when she posted about her twin sister making over the house that she had shared with him. His illness became national news after a couple of essays that would later become this book went viral, and it was weird reconciling that with the happy-looking guy who'd popped up in these posts over the years. Anyway Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who got nightmare cancer in his mid-30s, and then he died pretty soon thereafter, when his daughter was still a baby. Like if this were a movie it would have Mandy Moore in it, that's how sad this story was.

Kalanithi was one of those people who's good at every fucking thing, but he's likable anyway, which is itself a feat. This was quite a thoughtful book with this dignified zen vibe that is basically the opposite of my entire thing. If I were dying I'd probably just Carrie Mathison-cry and be rude to people. Oh wait, I'm already like that. So that plus I would eat flamin' hot cheetos with every meal.

Perfect title.

"John Cale's Inventive Retrospection" (New Yorker)
Dating back to Sasha Frere-Jones, whose work I really really despise, I have a proud tradition of hating the music dept at the New Yorker. It doesn't really matter who's writing, that stuff is consistently the worst. This caught my eye because it's about John Cale revisiting his old work, "revising" his albums in a way that's sort of like what Kanye's been doing with Life of Pablo. I don't think the stuff she says about the songs themselves is worth a hoot, but there's a lot of other stuff to chew on.

Evidently Cale has been doing this for a while, sort of reorganizing and revising his own legacy. I wasn't aware of this but it just so happens the latest album he fixed up (Fragments of a Rainy Season) is my favorite. (To be fair, I think it's the only John Cale solo album I actually own.) Thinking of albums as living, breathing things instead of a static artifact is itself very interesting, but the fact that it's John Cale in particular speaks to me because one of my most worst opinions is that some of the best Velvet Underground stuff is from their live 1993 reunion album. Cale singing All Tomorrow's Parties is one of my absolute favorites of all time.

A thousand years ago I talked to John Cale at a book signing for his autobiography and he was a real asshole. (And also bright yellow, which was sort of unsettling. I think he had hepatitis, though, so maybe that's what made him mean.) I think that's around when I decided that meeting your heroes is maybe not all it's cracked up to be.

The article also had a great anecdote about Cale's version of "Hallelujah."

These days that song isn't really listenable anymore, but I think Cale was one of the first people to cover it. His version really is stellar. I liked it back in the day. The article referred to a video he released for it a few months ago. It's sorta hacky but there are these shots where worms are crawling over his hands and, later, on his face, and it's a pretty powerful image, this 75yo covered in fucking worms. I think it was shot right before Cohen died? Also the piece mentions this interview where a journalist asked Cale if he was over Lou Reed's death. "Not really," he said. "I don't think that will happen." :(

"Brad Troemel, the Troll of the Internet Art World (New Yorker)  + "Christo, Trump, and the Art World's Biggest Biggest Protest Yet" (NYT)
Technically I read the Christo thing last week, but these two that are worth thinking about together. I probably would have dumped the first one after the first few paragraphs had it not been written by Adrian Chen because Troemel sounds worthless. I'm of an age where, when I really hate a gimmicky artist, I have to stop and ask myself if it's just because I'm old. But Troemel is one of those New Museum types, and I hated the New Museum even when I was a lot younger. His most famous project is literally a tumblr with pictures of a computer in the bathtub?? Whatever.

Christo, on the other hand, is a favorite. Maybe my very favorite. And he just completely burned down a project he's pumped $15 million of his own money into because he hates Trump so much. I hope someone writes a biography on him someday. One time I read this article about his process that said he pops raw garlic cloves all day long as a snack. Gotta imagine it gets weirder from there.

The parts of the Troemel piece I found most interesting were the ones that reminded me of Christo. For ex, Troemel is really interested in creating works that are ephemeral:

He's also interested in making stuff that exists outside of traditional settings like galleries and museums, having the potential to reach passersby instead of people deliberately taking in art:

Art memes. Not sure what I think about that. The article said that, while this was a thing that art people know about, most people who encountered the tumblr had no idea it was this weird concept art. Seems like it would be way cooler to make something that regular people could somehow recognize as art, that sort of made its context strange in the way that Christo's wrapped buildings made you rethink the skyline, the city, what art is, etc.

"Cat Marnell Is Still Alive" (New York Magazine)
Oh my god, this article fucked me up. I think it may be cursed or something. This article is basically The Ring and I have to show it to you so I can move on with my life. I wasn't familiar with Cat Marnell, but she's one of these Internet confessional types. And the piece is written by Emily Gould, who basically invented that. Anyway Marnell's thing is that she's a high-functioning drug addict and she wrote a book about it.  (The excerpt that's with the article is also crazy, but less so. Like if Bret Easton Ellis and William Burroughs wrote a women's magazine.) This is the paragraph from the Gould article that's been haunting me all week:

What the fuck. What in the fucking fuck does that even say. Just when you think it can't get worse there's that meat thermometer??

There are parts of this piece like this that are actually very good writing in the sense Gould undermines her own investment in all those dumb myths that spring up from bad addiction writing--the fake glamorousness, the tendency to make drug addiction sound like some sort of heroic quest, etc. There's this contrast between the Gould piece and Marnell's book excerpt, which is much, much more sanitized (even though her whole thing is supposed to be about being candid about being a mess). But mostly I hate this fucking piece. Emily Gould is one of those women where I feel this sort of carefulness about disliking her, because a lot of people hate her for the wrong reasons. But this is when I decided she's conclusively a garbage person:

"Story arc." Girl, get a soul.



  1. I just read that Taibbi book, too, despite also having read every single post as it came online. Fun times. It's to his credit that he released it with all his mispredictions intact, and then excoriates himself at the end.

    Otherwise, in the world of book-books, since the dawn of time I've been slowly slogging through Neal Stephenson's most recent book Seveneves. My friends reckoned his Baroque Cycle needed editing, but I loved basically every single page; this one, ugggggggh. Maybe it's just my educational background, but surely when the Baroque Cycle offers up the humanities equivalent of hard sci-fi, and it's all about world history/economics/computing theory/cryptography/the birth of modernity/the scientific revolution, that's just intrinsically more interesting than actual hard sci-fi about, like, engineering, orbital mechanics, and exactly how you would design massively modular spacecraft. There's at least 1600 pages in Seveneves that exhaustive/ingly detail the mechanics of how all this near-future technology would work, and the book is only 800 pages long. I don't give a shit about the rate at which they would have to adjust their velocity to reach the apogee ofzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. It's like some super-otaku spent 20 years working out the exact engingeering details of how the mecha in Evangelion would work, and then they published it as a book. Or: Stephenson just took all his research notes for the book he was planning to write, and made those the book instead.

    There's also this obnoxious element of pandering to tech-heads at the expense of those useless political fuck-ups. The plot at one point literally has the entire human race almost destroyed because some scientifically-illiterate politician interferes with the decision-making done by all the brilliant, selfless STEM-heads. Gross. Stephenson's always been like that -- Cryptonomicon had some starry-eyed tech-libertarian utopian nonsense too -- but it's especially unseemly in the current political climate.

    1. Reading it all in one go I was struck by how Taibbi seemed to grasp the potential for an upset early on and then just sort of blew off course abruptly. But yeah, prediction or no, he's so, so sharp.

      Every male novelist needs an editor who can cut him off when he goes off on too many tangents. Game of Thrones could've been a good thousand pages shorter if someone cut out some of the Old Country Buffet fan fiction.

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