Arts Desk

Five Books I’d Read

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1. How I Made It to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story, by Tracy White.
In the Pearl Jam song "Jeremy," the titular character, relentlessly taunted (at least metaphorically) by Eddie Vedder and Vedder's attractive, popular friends, is a disturbed adolescent who "speaks" in class by (at least according to the song's popular video) shooting himself in the head. Vedder, by his own account, does not absolve himself of culpability in this young man's unfortunate death. "Clearly I remember picking on the boy," he sang. "He seemed a harmless little fuck. But we unleashed a lion—he gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady's breast. How could I forget?" Indeed, how can any of us forget the horrors of adolescence—the bullying (in the case of its victims) silently endured or (in the case of the bullies themselves) mercilessly dealt out? In any case, it's a miracle anybody makes it to 18, whether a fan of grunge, or not.

2. California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative, by Jan Goggans.
Does anyone else remember that scene at the end of The Grapes of Wrath where a starving old Okie breastfeeds from a young mother? Didn't think so. That scene's really intense, though.

3. Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of One of America's Most Notorious Drug Lords, by Frank Lucas and Aliya S. King.
Didn't this movie come out in, like, 1999 or something? I guess I'll just be one of those guys who's (air-quotes) "behind the times" when I pick this autobiography up, just like the time I got really into Metallica's Kill 'Em All in 2002, and only started liking Radiohead's OK Computer last November. (That's a lie. I hate Radiohead, except for that song "I'm a Creep.")

4. Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama.
What is art? Is it a) normatively (n.b.: that's the first time I've ever used the word "normative" as an adverb) useless behavior? Or does b) art serve some political/sociological/philosophical/cultural/religious/biological/evolutionary function? Or, c) if art does serve some political/sociological/philosophical/cultural/religious/biological/evolutionary function, does that mean that, because it has a purpose, it isn't art? Because, if that is the case, we're right back where we started. Or perhaps we should ask the opposite question: Is any art useless? The Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, for example, doesn't really serve a purpose in the way that a cotton gin serves a purpose, but it did stimulate the record-buying/movie-going public to spend their dollars and stimulate the economy of the spectacle. So the Bee Gees definitely aren't useless, but maybe that's just a bad example. Alternately, in 1990s, I used to play free jazz in college. This music—neither popular, forward-looking, revolutionary, tuneful, communicative, nor fun—served no purpose, wasn't recorded, and was hated by everyone who wasn't also in college, and by 99 percent of college students as well. Because it served no purpose, was that music more like art than the Bee Gees? I just don't know. That's why I need a goddamn Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, and why Frederick Luis Aldama has goddamn well provided one.

5. Eline Vere, by Louis Couperus. Translated by Ina Rilke. Afterword by Paul Binding.
For all of those times that you want to read a new translation of a Dutch novel first published in 1889, the year punk broke.

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