The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

A terrific novel, written in blank verse, about life as a werewolf on the Los Angeles streets. Barlow asks, “What is a man?” His answer is not John Wayne’s. Barlow asks as well, “What is a dog? And why do dogs do what they do?” These dogs can be men whenever they like, and can become dogs as they please. There’s a prosperous law firm where they guys knock off work, pile into a big SUV stocked with beer and steaks, drive out into the desert, and go for a run. There’s a pack of dogs that descends on nickel-and-dime meth labs. Something is wrong at the dog pound. And then there’s Buster, who thinks of himself Lark, top dog of a top pack, who disguises himself as a lapdog to escape from a tense situation on his way to world domination, and who finds being a nice lady’s pet is pretty damn good.

November 30, 2009 (permalink)

Most museum stores are deplorable, especially those noisy souvenir stands they throw across the exit of costly blockbuster exhibits, hoping to wring a few extra dollars from visitors in exchange for coasters, toys, and playing cards. I’ve notices lately that some of the larger contemporary museums, notably San Francisco and Chicago, have stores that one might choose to enter.

And so a brief downpour yesterday found me leaving the SFMOMA store with a copy of James Elkins’ tiny What Happened to Art Criticism? . He sets out to decipher

[the] fascinating mystery that art criticism has turned so abruptly from the engaged, passionate, historically informed practice it was before the late twentieth century, into the huge, massively funded but invisible and voiceless practice it has effectively become.

Elkins acknowledges that opposition to contemporary criticism has often stemmed from the reactionary right and from nostalgia for an imaginary past. After Bush, those forces perhaps are spent; in the academy, at least, we know again that knowledge and skill are useful and desirable things to have. But Elkins is haunted by phantom criticism for phantom audiences:

Critics seldom know who reads their work beyond the gallerists who commission it and the artists about whom they write: and often that reading public is ghostly precisely because it does not exist. A ghostly profession, catering for ghosts, but in a grand style.

November 18, 2009 (permalink)

A brilliantly-written, charismatic chronicle of the chronicler of Broadway, written by one of the last men to fill Runyon’s shoes as a New York sportswriter. Runyon was a queer fish. He didn’t drink, but liked nothing better than to spend the night in a bar. He didn’t much like star athletes, and became the characteristic voice of what was remembered as a golden age because he wrote about it. He wrote skeptically of guys and dolls, and fell himself for a young Mexican dancer who was, he convinced himself (if not anyone else) really a Spanish countess. As Adam Gopnick observed earlier this year, Runyon was a gentile who spent most of his time with nice Jewish boys who happened to be gangsters. His take on this book is not charitable:

The best book about Runyon is Jimmy Breslin’s slightly dispiriting biography, published in 1991, one of those “matches” that make a publisher feel wonderful until the manuscript comes in. Writers train for one length or another, and Breslin’s is essentially a series of eight-hundred-word columns strung together, all told in that good Breslin style, where this guy said that to this other guy—quick glimpses of Prohibition, the Hearst press, stealing coats in the Depression—so that the total effect is like watching the world’s longest subway train go by at night.

And he is not wrong, though perhaps that longest subway train is a slight exaggeration. But Breslin has a nose for the story, and Breslin’s big story — the transition from Prohibition Manhattan, where friction was about money and religion, to 1960 New York, where everything was about race – fits nicely with Runyon’s, and the opening segue, from the archives of the University of Texas to the old Hearst newsroom and a dingy Manhattan apartment filled with cops and reporters, is a thing of beauty.

November 12, 2009 (permalink)

The title story is a great story, of course, and White’s writing is famously so crisp and engaging that it hardly matters whether he is talking about forgotten poets or nasal surgery in time of war. The unmissable chapter here, though, is White’s unforgettable preface to Roy E. Jones’ A Basic Chicken Guide for the Small Flock Owner.

Although I refuse to believe that she is a silly creature, I will admit that the hen is a rather unpredictable one and sometimes manages to surprise even an old friend and admirer like myself. Last December, after about sixteen weeks of collecting eggs in my laying house without causing any undue alarm among the birds, I went in one morning wearing a wrist watch my wife had given me for Christmas. I opened the first deck of nests and thrust my hand under a hen to pull the eggs out. The hen took one look at the watch and shrieked, “A time bomb!” Instantly the whole house was in an uproar, with hens trampling each other in a mad rush for the corners. This sort of panicky behavior causes some people to regard the hen as a silly creature.

November 1, 2009 (permalink)

A lively, engaging, and readable account of the legendary outset of Roosevelt’s New Deal. On arriving in office, Roosevelt knew that action had to be taken at once, but what action to take remained very much in question. Cohen argues that the entire shape of the New Deal emerged from the personalities and plans of a handful of aides and cabinet memebrs, especially Ray Moley, Frances Perkins, and a late recruit who Roosevelt scarcely knew named Harry Hopkins. Meanwhile, Republicans sneered at each administration proposal, denouncing bank regulation as communist and child labor regulation as fascist, while pundits worried about partisan divisions and the Democratic majority’s ability to pass legislation despite Republican opposition. Through it all, Roosevelt’s ability to project confidence and determination steadied markets, reassured banks, and gave unemployed and desperate workers hope that, eventually, happy days would be here again.

October 13, 2009 (permalink)