Sunday, September 3, 2017

Summer Reading

Robert Boyd

Summer reading is always advertised as light reading, but a better description is "reading for pleasure". For me, all reading is for pleasure--I haven't read a book because I had to since I left grad school. My reading this summer has mostly fallen into various long-time interests of mine. And because I continue to be unemployed, I've had plenty of time to read. (Any job leads would be much appreciated, readers!)

I'm arranging my reading by category below. I always have a group of subjects that interest me at any given time...

  • Soviet history

For most of my life, I thought the Soviet Union was a boring place. How do you have an interesting history or society when every move you make is regulated and controlled by a central state, eager to suppress any personal feelings you might have? I had read some Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in high school, but never delved deeper until much later. I was 29 when the Soviet Union fell, and that seemed to me like a good moment to never think about it again.

But shortly after that, I became interested in the nonconformist Soviet artists who arose mostly in the 1970s. For example,  Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov. In 1994, a really good book, The Ransom of Russian Art by John McPhee, was published. It was about how economics professor Norton Dodge started buying art by nonconformist artists on his many trips to the USSR (his academic specialty was Soviet economics). His story was exciting. But it left me with a lot of questions. What had happened to Soviet culture that had lead to these artists doing what they did? I started investigating. And culture couldn't be separated from history, and the history turned out to be fascinating. And since perestroika, lots of previously suppressed historical information has become available. My interest in the Soviet Union has kind of snowballed ever since. This summer I read:

Who Killed Kirov?: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery by Amy Knight (2000).  Sergei Kirov was the Communist party boss of Leningrad. He was assassinated in December 1934, an event that precipitated the Great Purge, in which Stalin had thousands of loyal Communists (aka "old Bolsheviks") executed. This book makes the completely circumstantial case that Stalin was behind Kirov's assassination mainly by showing that Kirov had gotten on Stalin's wrong side. This thesis seems plausible but is unproven. The value of the book is in its biography of Kirov--what did it look like to be an important young Bolshevik before and after the rise to power of the Bolsheviks in 1917? And its detailed description of the political intrigue just prior and just after Kirov's death is fascinating. The trajectory towards death of three of the most important old Bolsheviks, Zinoviev, Kamanev and Bukharin, is particularly interesting. Very readable, but expect to be snowed under by lots of Russian names.

Ernst Neizvestnyi, gravestone of Nikita Khrushchev, 1995

Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman (2004). There are a lot of good books about Stalin, but this is the only one I know about his successor, Khrushchev. I was particularly interested in Khrushchev because he undid so much of what Stalin did--the so-called Khrushchev Thaw. He denounced Stalin in the "secret speech" in 1956 and emptied out the gulags. Under Khrushchev, there was a general liberalization of the arts. Khrushchev personally permitted  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to be published--it was the first literary account of life in Stalin's Gulag published in the USSR. But Khrushchev also suppressed Doctor Zhivago. The fact was that he wasn't a particularly cultured person and allowed himself to be influenced by the "experts", some of whom were progressive and some of whom were reactionary Stalinist holdovers. But of course, this is only a small part of his life and political career. More interesting is how a member of Stalin's inner circle became a reformer who ran the USSR for 10 years before being replaced in a coup by neostalinists lead by Leonid Brezhnev, who had been a protege of Khrushchev. The neostalinists would rule the Soviet Union from 1964 until 1985. (Interestingly, Kirov and Khrushchev were both avid hunters.)

The image above is an example of the ironies of Khrushchev's reign. The sculptor, Ernst Neizvestnyi, had been in a verbal altercation with Khrushchev in an exhibit in 1962. Khrushchev was tricked into attending an exhibit of modernist artworks and had no clue what to make of them. Neizvestnyi was in attendance, and Khrushchev called Neizvestnyi a "faggot." The two men argued vociferously. But Khrushchev was no Stalin and there were no repercussions for Neizvestnyi. After he died, the Khrushchev family commissioned Neizvestnyi to design Khrushchev's headstone, which places a naturalistic bust within an abstract, modernist design. Fitting that an artist who stood his ground before the leader of the Soviet Union should be given this commission.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (2013). Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015, but she is what most readers would call a journalist. She is best known for creating astonishing oral histories. This book consists of people talking about their lives during the period just before and just after the end of the Soviet Union--the 80s and 90s mostly. We read accounts of life under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and the resentment that so many had over the economic depression caused by acting Prime Minister Gaider's "shock treatment" approach to market liberalization. Particularly older Russions who worked their entire lives in a shitty factory and suddenly found their pensions worth nothing. But the text is complex, and public opinion as revealed by Alexievich's interviews is full of contradictions. One of the interview subjects points out that half the impoverished pensioners were former NKVD  informers, camp guards, etc. They had been willing participants in a system that ground up and tortured millions. But many of the interviews are with people who survived that system just barely.

Khrushchev makes an appearance in a surprising way--in the "Khrushchyoykas," cheap apartment blocks that Khrushchev started building in the 50s which by the 90s were badly deteriorated. They may have been crappy, but had the benefit of giving many people their own private apartments for the first time. We think of the dissident movement of the 60s and 70s as having grown out of the Khrushchev Thaw, but perhaps just as much it grew out of the Khrushchyovkas, where people could gather in the kitchens to discuss subversive ideas. It seemed that everyone read samizdat and illegally imported books (like Dr. Zhivago) and discussed these ideas in their kitchens. But with the fall of the USSR, ideas were exchanged for stuff. All those kitchen intellectuals became irrelevant after 1989. Russia had no Vaclav Havel.

The hardest account to read was one by "Anna M.", whose mother was pregnant when she was arrested. Anna was born in a camp in Khazakstan and from the age of 5 to 16, lived in an orphanage. Her descriptions of her young life are devastating--I had to put the book down and walk away. She was 59 years old when she was interviewed by Alexievich. There are also shattering first-person accounts of the wars that broke out in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union--for example, the war between Georgia and the separatist Abkhazians, or between Azeris and Armenians. This book is almost encyclopedic. People who hated Gorbachev, who loved him, who loved Yeltsin, who were nostalgic for Stalinism, etc. A truly great work of journalism, and a great example why journalistic and non-fiction works should be considered for literary prizes.

  • Comics

I have loved comics since I was a kid reading B.C. and Peanuts in the paper, and that love has had its lulls but has never died. All of the comics below are relatively new graphic novels.

Emil Ferris, 2-page spread from My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris. A powerful new graphic novel by a cartoonist who seemingly came out of nowhere. A swirling, colorful work, drawn in ballpoint pens and flair markers, it details the life of a 10-year-old girl, Karen. living in a rough part of Chicago in the 1960s. There is a murder in her building, and Karen is determined to solve it. This makes it sound like a Nancy Drew mystery, but it is much stranger and more personal. Karen's brother, Deeze, is an artist and takes Karen to the Art Institute where she loves the weirder paintings, and many of the visuals in the story quote the paintings. The art is unlike anything I've ever seen in a comic book, and I've seen a lot. The art and story are obsessive and beautiful and sad. This is maybe the best book I read all summer--definitely the best comic. (I think Secondhand Time wins the "prize" for best book.)

The Customer is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond. This is a sequel to her quasi-autobiographical graphic novel Over Easy. The main character is an art school drop-out working at a hip restaurant in Oakland in the late 70s. This is pre-AIDS and pre-Reagan, so there is a lot of sex and drugs (specifically copious cocaine use). It's a very entertaining and sometimes moving vie de bohème.

Demon volume 3 by Jason Shiga. This is the third volume of four volume series. Shiga is well-known for creating works that incorporate puzzle-like structures, and the Demon series is no different. The main character is a man who can't die--whenever he dies, he wakes up in another person's body, the person who happened to be closest to him at the time of his death. A series of incredibly violent adventures ensue. Not particularly deep but totally entertaining.

Seth, p. 29 of the last chapter of Clyde Fans

Palookaville 23 by Seth. Seth has been publishing his solo comic book Palookaville since 1991. It started out as a black-and-white comic book, then in 2010 turned into a hardback which was published approximately once every two years. This volume has the final chapter of Clyde Fans, a graphic novel that Seth started it in 1997, along with a longish autobiographical story and a selection of paintings. The end of Clyde Fans is kind of an epochal event in Seth's career as a cartoonist--the ending is very contemplative and somewhat melancholy. But the other story, "Nothing Lasts," is really good, too. A great work by one of comics' greatest artists.

Ron Regé, Jr., What Parsifal Saw p. 73, from the story "Diana"

What Parsifal Saw by Ron Regé, Jr. Regé has been one of my favorite cartoonists since I lived in Massachusetts 20-odd years ago and he was self-publishing comics in Boston. Since then, he has moved to L.A. and become a serious new ager, heavily invested in the study of alchemy. A major portion of this book is composed of illustrated texts from Madame Blavatsky, the founder of a "religion" known as theosophy. I find theosophy and new age beliefs to be utterly ridiculous, like believing in astrology. But these beliefs are seriously inspirational for Regé, and Blavatsky's writing has provoked him to produce a lot of very cool, cosmic drawings. This book also includes his retelling of the origin of Wonder Woman, which Regé describes as a "parody" of the original comics by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. But it's not really a parody; I think Regé was just covering his ass by calling it that. Instead, it reads like a straight-up retelling, lovingly re-drawn in his own style.

Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell. I've written about Bell before--she's an artist I've enjoyed for years. A lot of her stories are somewhat cynical takes on urban life, but this one is quite autobiographical and seems deeply felt. It's about how her eccentric mother's cabin burned down and how Gabrielle helped her get back on her feet with the help of people in her Mom's rural Northern California community. I miss the urban cynic somewhat, but it seems like habitual cynicism is something Bell has grown out of as an artist.

Fante Bukowski Two by Noah Van Sciver. This is a sequel to a small book published in 2015 about an writer-manqué whose ridiculous pen name is Fante Bukowski. The first book was a small comic gem. 80 pages was the perfect length for Fante Bukowski. The second volume is substantially longer and the additional pages don't help. Van Sciver tries to make is a satire of the publishing world and is only somewhat successful. But he's great at depicting lowlife. The disgusting hotel that Fante Bukowski lives in is a comic masterpiece of total degradation, as is the recurring hooker character. And Van Sciver has a gift for funny lines. My favorite (in my current unemployed state) was when Bukowski gets cut off by his Mom. "Okay, think, Fante, think! You can't get a job! Jobs are for quitters!"  Van Sciver's art is perfect for the content--grungy, lively cartooning.

  • Art
I am always interested in art, especially art that happens here, as readers of this blog will certainly know. Three of the books below touch on art here in Houston, but I have a general interest in the subject. I enjoy reading about art, especially art history.

Houston Reflections: Art in the City, 1950s, 60s, and 70s by Sarah Reynolds (2007). I've never seen an actual printed version of this book, but the entire book is available for free online. It consists of transcribed oral histories of early Houston artists, most of whom are still alive today but quite old. I had read bits and pieces of it in the past, but decided to read the whole thing finally. It's a key text in the art history of Houston--how did artists do their thing in a city that for the most part couldn't care less? Especially, how did African American artists make a place for themselves in a segregated Houston?

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Expanded Edition by Lawrence Weschler (1982/2008). I first read this excellent biography of Robert Irwin in the early 90s (the first edition was published in 1982). This expanded edition was published in 2008. The new edition has 87 extra pages and disusses his big retrospective at MOCA in LA, his design of the garden at the Getty Museum, and his big installations at Dia. Irwin was born in 1928, which makes me wonder if there will be more expanded editions in the future. But since the publication of this edition, Irwin completed a major work in Marfa, Texas. It opened in 2016, so there is at least one more chapter to write. It is said to be Irwin's largest work to date--and if it's larger than the garden at the Getty, it must be enormous indeed. It is interesting to think that a biography of an artist would need to be continually updated due to the continuing fecundity of its subject. But that seems to be the case with Irwin.

Earl Staley, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1992, acrylic on canvas, reproduced in Contemporary Art in Texas.

Contemporary Art in Texas by Patricia Covo Johnson (1995). Johnson was an art critic for the Houston Chronicle (which like most daily papers, no longer has a full-time art critic). This book is a survey of the scene in Texas at 1995, artist by artist. There is a little overlap with Houston Reflections, but not as much as you would think. By 1995, the art scene in Texas was quite different from what it had been in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Johnson was looking at art from all over the state, but if she seems to focus on Houston art, one can hardly blame her. Houston's art scene was very dynamic at the time--it dominated the state. (I wouldn't make that claim now.) Plus, she was located here and had access to all the artists in Houston. She was married to to a well-known Houston artist, Lucas Johnson (1940-2002). The texts for each artist is fairly slight--it's not a heavily critical book--and most of the illustrations are black and white, unfortunately. Despite this, it's a useful document of the times. The introduction is by Walter Hopps (see The Dream Colony below).

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World by Roger White (2017). The description of this sounded right up my alley--a journalistic exploration of the art world as it currently exists. I was thinking it might be like Sarah Thornton's excellent books. It was OK and highly readable, but not particularly memorable. White found several interesting subjects to write about, including a mostly forgotten conceptual artist, Stephen Kaltenbach, but the book as a whole never coheres into a worldview. It feels like a series of somewhat related magazine articles.

Edward Kienholz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959

The Dream Colony: A Life in Art by Walter Hopps, Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran. This is sort of an autobiography of Walter Hopps, except that Hopps didn't write it. It's based on a series of edited interviews with Hopps. The interviews were conducted by Anne Doran, and the plan had been for Triesman and Hopps to work together to form it into a narrative. But Hopps died in 2005 and the project died for a while. The problem with it as a memoir is that it doesn't really cover his last few years in much detail, which is a bit of a disappointment to those of us here in Houston (Hopps was the first director of the Menil Museum). It also has the problem of reading like an interview instead of a written memoir. I prefer my prose to read like prose. But still, the richness of Hopps' life is amazing.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy by Scott Bishop, Robert Ekelund, Danielle Mohr Funderburk, Dennis Harper, J. Andrew Henley, Jessica Hughes, Marilyn Laufer, Paul Manoguerra, Daniel Scott Neil, Heather Read, Sunny Stalter-Pace and Mark White (2012). After World War II, the State Department started compiling a collection of modern American art with the specific intent of showing it abroad. The idea was to show what free American artists could produce, unlike art from the Soviet Union, which was backward looking socialist realism enforced heavily by the government. The collection was successfully exhibited in Eastern Europe and Latin America but scuppered by reactionary forces in the U.S. The collection was sold off as war surplus in 1948. This book details the work in the collection and talks about the political situation that ended this experiment. Subsequently, the CIA (working with MOMA) secretly funded exhibitions of avant garde American art in Europe and South America. The essays in this catalog are very repetitious, and the collection is not first rate (the buyer for the State Department had middling tastes), but many of the pieces are great and the story is incredible and full of irony.

Hans Namuth,  Julian Schnabel, 1981

Hans Namuth Portraits by Carolyn Kinder Carr (1999). Namuth (1915-1990) is mostly famous for one thing--photographing Jackson Pollack at work. And they are great photos--they really give one an idea of what Pollack was doing. But he made a career out of photographing accomplished, creative people, including most of the other abstract expressionists and various New York School personalities in all arts: composers, architects, writers, etc. One hilarious photo of Julian Schnabel mimics his famous Pollack photos, but Schnabel is wearing a spotless designer shirt. It really typifies that era. Namuth wasn't a great photographer, but he was a good one, and the personalities he captured here make it worth it.

  • Science Fiction
I used to be a devoted reader of science fiction, and I still read it from time to time. I only read one science fiction book this summer, though.

Earth by David Brin (1990). Brin is a writer of sprawling science fiction epics with tons of characters. He is most famous for The Postman, which got made into an infamous flop starring Kevin Costner. But the book was really good. Earth is about Earth on the verge of total environmental collapse and the many people who are trying to prevent it. There is some science fictional stuff about black holes, and millions of characters (which is typical in a Brin novel). And lots of stuff about the culture of the world that humanity finds itself in. In a lot of ways, the book is remarkably prescient. But I found it kind of boring--eventually I lost interest in whether or not the world got saved.