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LitMonkey – December 2012

December 31, 2012

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the second installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

December was a month for building on what I read in November.  I didn’t set out for it to be that way, but it’s hard to argue with success; I really enjoyed November’s offerings (enough to launch this column!) so I said, “why not?”

It had been at least six months since I read a Hornby novel and after More Baths Less Talking I remembered how much I enjoy him.  How To Be Good is not Hornby’s best effort.  Actually, it is my least favorite of the four Hornby novels I’ve read to date.[1]  Nevertheless, it was the one that convinced me that he is now my favorite author of fiction (sorry Chuck Palahniuk).  In fact, that is actually what convinced me – despite the book’s shortcomings, despite it not quite rising to the level that its predecessors did, I was absolutely enthralled from beginning to end.  I simply could not put the book down, and that’s probably the foremost sign of a fantastic writer.  He succeeds even when failing (for him).  Actually, the more I think about it, that may be the telltale sign that someone is great at what they do regardless of what it is, whether it’s writing, dancing, playing basketball or writing a legal brief.  It’s not how good you are on your best day, but how good you are on your worst.  Michael Jordan is remembered not only for his six titles – an achievement that puts him in the conversation for the best player of all time – but for his rising to the occasion in the “Flu Game[2], where he cemented his status as the greatest to ever play the game.  How To Be Good is not Hornby’s breakthrough first title over the Lakers, nor is it his triumphant last-shot last-game last-title over Utah in 1998. It’s his Flu Game.  Not exactly a bad thing.

OK, so now that I’ve extolled his virtues, my main issue with How To Be Good is how contrived it is.  The protagonist (Katie) is a woman married to “The Angriest Man in Holloway.”  That is both the name of his newspaper column and his outlook on life.  Then, in an instant, after seeing some sort of spiritualist, he becomes an insufferable do-gooder, the likes of which no one you or I have ever met or will ever meet.  Nothing about this man’s new personality is remotely believable.  And while I understand that this is Hornby’s point – he’s set up a man who in turn represents two extreme ends of the spectrum of cynicism to optimism in order to bring out the conflict in the book’s main character –the manufactured nature of it all undermines it.  It lacks the possibility for the sweetness and charm we get in Hornby’s other novels.  I realize that I am coming off quite negative – please allow me say that the writing is excellent, Hornby is clever and witty and funny as always, and I did truly care about Katie.  Just not quite as much as I did for some of his other main characters.  And I certainly did not care at all about her husband David.  Contrast that with the smile I had upon the brief appearance of Dick from the record store – a minor character in High Fidelity whom I’ll always love.

A review of The Advanced Genius Theory needs to be broken down into two components: the theory itself and the book.  In 2004, Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece for Esquire describing the “Advanced Genius Theory,” an idea founded by Jason Hartley and Britt Bergman in 1990, during a conversation at a Pizza Hut in Columbia, South Carolina.  I won’t offer a literal summary of the theory here – Klosterman’s piece is brief and sufficient.  All you need to know is that it is a basis upon which to appreciate the so-called sh*tty work of otherwise brilliant artists, mainly musicians.   I do think it’s fun, however, to describe what makes a Hartley/Bergman “Advanced Genius” by way of an analogy.  Please close your eyes and picture the following:

Imagine major league baseball, played in a parallel universe where nobody kept score, nobody knew how many hits you had or runs you scored or what your batting average was, you simply played the game.  And at the end of the game, an official scorer would decide who won and lost, but it wouldn’t necessarily be based on how many runs each team scored (though that would factor in for sure, maybe even be the most important factor).  It would also be based on how you played: how the runs were scored, the strategy involved, even the aesthetics of your play.  You might get more credit for getting a great outing from a weaker pitcher than an ace, unless of course that dominant pitcher threw a lot of strikeouts, strikeouts being prized for their skill and artistry.  You play all these games and at the end of the season it would be time to vote for the Most Valuable Player (not exactly the same as “best player”, with no real defined term or identified factors for voters consider – this is one way in which my imaginary MLB and the real one are identical!).  And remember, there are no statistics by which to base one’s vote, just a recollection of how much each player contributed to these amorphous wins and losses.  Perspectives on these contributions would likely be shaped by how good the talent was around each player, the style in which they played, and maybe to some extent just what the players looked like and their overall personalities.  Now imagine that at the end of each player’s career voters were asked to decide whether the player belonged in a Hall of Fame, again with no statistics by which to base one’s vote or clearly defined factors for voters consider, though certain random factors might help. For instance, it might be good if you played for one team for your entire career (yet somehow it might also be good if you changed teams other year of your career!).  It might help if at some point you were underpaid or underappreciated, or if you left the game for a time and later triumphantly returned, or tried to play many different positions, or overcame a significant injury … there’s no telling what could help your Hall of Fame credentials.  Eventually, certain players would be deemed Hall of Famers, or in another word, Advanced.

As for The Advanced Genius Theory itself, it is best described as a blog post stretched into book.  I say that facetiously, but it’s not entirely untrue.  How Hartley squeezed an entire book out of this is beyond me.  The funny thing is that given my propensity to read almost any well-reasoned theory about popular culture (no matter how useless the information would ultimately prove), I am probably the one (and only) person who went into this book excited to see Hartley’s theory play out over 250 pages.  Yet I was disappointed.  After introducing the theory, the book spirals into a mess.  It is unorganized, not well-researched (yes, even with a made up theory, you can look into more about artists you plan to write about) … it doesn’t appear to have been planned out at all.  I kept thinking was that it should have been an ongoing blog with regular updates on the works of the Advanced and not-yet-Advanced, arguments about artists that do and do not fit the categories, and other Advancement-related developments.  And lo and behold, that exists!  Hartley himself created the blog and maintained it until late 2010.  I’m not sure why he stopped, but this is something I could have gotten behind.  For example, Hartley barely mentions Beck in his book, and I’m 100% convinced that Beck – now, at this stage in his career and as we enter 2013 –is Advanced.  I guess that’s a 2bitMonkey post for another day.

It’s been almost ten years since I picked up one of the annual “Best American Sports Writing” series.  Wandering through the library I saw the 2012 edition on the shelf, with guest editor Michael Wilbon (of ESPN fame), and I thought that it was worth a check-out.  At worst, I would come away with a few interesting, inspiring, or innovative stories that would move me, or make me think, or at least make me smile and remember why I love sports, right?  Wrong.   If it is sordid, tragic, or just plain depressing, and it was written in the past year, it had a great chance of making it into this book.  To be fair, first is the story of Bryce Harper, Washington’s wunderkind baseball player, and the promise that a young athletic prodigy brings to a city starved for one.  The story of Harper is not yet complete – it’s hardly even begun – yet it is representative of what I thought a piece in the “Best American Sports Writing” series should be.  It takes something that we love about sports – that time in the beginning of a superstar athlete’s career when his potential is limitless, and optimism abounds – and delves deeper into it by exploring Harper’s background, temperament, teammates and contemporaries.  But for the one story about the overwhelming hope and pressure we bestow upon a prodigy, we have two stories about dead former NFL players, one shot dead due to money and fame, the second from repeated concussions.  We then have yet another story of head trauma in sports, this one prematurely killing a former NHL goon.  We somehow have not one, but two stories about former college superstar guards turned NBA all-stars now desperately hanging onto a basketball career without family, friends or fans in a far-away country that is a basketball wasteland.[3]  We have “The Shame of College Sports”, the longest essay in the book and one I could not bring myself to bother reading.  Finally, you reach the last story, which by its name signifies that it could be nothing other than lighthearted fun, “The History (and Mystery) of the High Five.”  Alas, even this was the tragic tale of a marginal baseball player effectively expelled from the sport due to his less-than-completely-closeted homosexuality.  The book is like a collection of episodes of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, except without any purpose other than to depress.  I only wish they’d ask me to pen a blurb for the jacket: “If you hate sports but you love reading about them, this is the book for you!”  I highly recommend The Best American Sports Writing 2012 to anyone who wants to strip sports of everything that is beautiful and majestic and wallow in the worst of it all.

After testing the waters with Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Naked was the first “real” book by David Sedaris that I’ve read.  I was expecting dark comedy and a bit of an exaggerated memoir, which is a perfectly apt description of Naked.  So how was it that I was still so surprised by what I read?  Sedaris is funny, and expert at turning a phrase, but his writing wasn’t what excited me.  What did – what in fact shocked me (and made me laugh) – were the stories themselves, which seem impossible to be based on truth, though I know and believe they are.  I understand that Sedaris exaggerates (perhaps quite liberally) for comedic effect, but at the heart of each story is factual basis, something the author has actually lived through.  And this is what makes this book (and perhaps this author generally) a brilliant read: who could possibly, and in many cases voluntarily, live through all of this?  A summer job volunteering at a mental institution where the patients often turn violent?  A cross-country trip by way of hitchhiking with a quadriplegic friend? This latter one after nearly once being murdered hitchhiking?  And while it’s hard to believe that all of this could happen to anyone (and all by around the age of 30!), there is likely a story in here for everyone to relate to on a more personal level.  Perhaps it’s the tale of the senile and racist grandmother that the family is forced to love.  Or the account of the first menstruation of one of Sedaris’ sisters, which takes place at a golf championship with only her cold father and confused brother there to guide her.  For me, it’s a “Plague of Tics,” a highly detailed description of Sedaris’ bizarre obsessive-compulsive symptoms as a child, which includes licking light switches, kissing newspapers, and counting the steps home from school, and his family’s (and especially his mother’s) methods of coping and laughing it off.  Before Naked, I knew that Sedaris was dark and funny and probably a good storyteller.  I didn’t know he was borderline insane, a man rich with experience and a family to match.  I’m looking forward to Me Talk Pretty One Day in January.

There are many biographies of Andy Warhol.  Probably too many to count.  Danto says as much in the preface to his book, which he describes as “no more a piece of art history than it is a biography, but rather a study of what makes Warhol so fascinating an artist from a philosophical perspective.” I am not a philosopher, but even I can easily understand the general themes Danto conveys to the reader:

  • Warhol changed not the way we look at art, but the way art is defined.  Though others have done this before, he did it so dramatically that it resulted in distinctly pre-Warhol and post-Warhol eras.
  • Not only did Warhol redefine art dramatically, he did it differently, in a way that no one before him did.  It wasn’t simply re-asking the age-old question, “What is art?”  It was “What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?”
  • Warhol was a celebrity, a sensation, an American icon.  We all know this.  But he was all of these things before he was a celebrated (or even accepted) artist.  When reviews were negative, he was a star.  Danto doesn’t say this, but this would portend the kind of celebrities we often see in today’s culture – those famous for being famous.
  • Warhol’s art was deeply political.  Yes, I’m talking about the Coca-cola bottles, the Marilyns, the Brillo Boxes, etc., not just Mao.  Warhol celebrated ordinary life – American life – and how anyone, regardless of class or status, could enjoy it equally.  This is best exemplified by one of Warhol’s own quotes: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it”.
  • An artist is an artist.  He is not a painter or a sculptor or a writer or an actor.  He is all those things and anything else he wants to be that has a medium by which to convey his artistic vision.  No one exemplified this more than Warhol.

If you enjoy reading a biography which addresses the genius of Warhol from this perspective, this book will not disappoint.  Immediately after reading it, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” which purports to juxtapose 45 works by Warhol with 100 works by 60 other artists who were influenced by him in some way.  Before reading Danto’s Andy Warhol, I would not have been able to articulate why I didn’t see the continuity between Warhol’s work and many of the artists displayed at “Regarding Warhol” (and why in a few instances I did).  I also would not have quite appreciated seeing certain of Warhol’s creations, such as the film “Empire” and the screen tests of Lou Reed and Nico.  Having read the book, I could now understand the criticisms leveled by Slate and the NY Times, among others.  For example, Danto would no doubt agree with Slate’s Fred Kaplan who writes, “Some critics, including the authors of the Met show’s catalogue, depict Warhol as a ‘dark social critic’ of American life, but this is off the mark.”  And I could understand the brilliance of “Empire” (where Warhol filmed the Empire State Building with a stationary camera for approximately eight hours one night), which asks the question, “What is the essence of moving picture?”  This is the enlightenment of Danto’s book.

OK, I admit it.  I read a lot this month.  And I had a lot to say about it.  If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, you get a gold star.  I have a feeling the pace will slow in January (notice the second book I borrowed from the library – that’s not just a bedtime story my friends, it’s my life).  But more Sedaris and a little Oliver Sacks are at the top of the list.

[1] High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Juliet Naked being the others.  You can throw in the screenplay for An Education, which I also loved.

[2] In Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, with the best of 7 series tied 2-2 and Game 5 in Utah, Jordan played 44 minutes despite waking the prior morning nauseated and sweating profusely. He hardly had the strength to sit up in bed and was diagnosed with a stomach virus or food poisoning. The Bulls’ trainers told Jordan that there was no way he could play. He was visibly tired and sluggish throughout the game. He finished the game with 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block and made a critical made a 3-point shot to give the Bulls an 88-85 lead with 25 seconds remaining in the game.

[3] I remember sitting in Madison Square Garden watching Georgetown’s 19-year old sophomore Allen Iverson and Georgia Tech’s 18-year old freshman Stephon Marbury face off in the NIT Preseason Invitational at Madison Square Garden in 1995.  The matchup was highly anticipated as both players, despite their youth, were already stars, and Marbury was making his first return to his home city, where he was a high school and playground legend.  Both players turned pro after that season and went in the top 5 in the NBA draft.  Both had excellent careers that lasted well over a decade.  Silly me, but that’s how I prefer to remember the sports stars of my youth.

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