The New York Times has published a transcript of Michiko Kakutani’s recent conversation with US President Barak Obama about books:
Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?
I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.
So in that sense, I think there will be some consistency.
But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.
Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.
You can read the article that resulted from this conversation here.
Surely there are few other politicians — let alone world leaders — who could speak so intelligently and at such length about contemporary literature.
A decade after its first release, Vulturelooks back at the terrifying new relevance of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film (based loosely on a novel by P. D. James), Children of Men:
Children of Men is having a remarkable resurgence — not just because of its tenth anniversary but because of its unsettling relevance at the conclusion of this annus horribilis. There have been glowing reappraisals on grounds both sociopolitical (Children of Men is “obviously something that should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in September) and artistic (“Children of Men, like no other film this century, and perhaps no other movie ever, solves the meaning of life,” wroteVanity Fair columnist Richard Lawson in August). It’s getting the kind of online attention it sorely lacked ten years ago, generating recent headlines like “The Syrian Refugee Crisis Is Our Children of Men Moment” and “Are We Living in the Dawning of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men?” As critic David Ehrlich put it in November, “Children of Men may be set in 2027,” but in 2016, “it suddenly became clear that its time had come.”
Cuarón, however, is not feeling like taking an overdue victory lap. Curled over a table in an upscale Mexico City restaurant recently, the 55-year-old director gets a little irritated when I laud the film’s imaginative prescience. “This thing was not imagination,” he says, jabbing his index finger into the tablecloth. By Cuarón’s estimation, anyone surprised at the accuracy of his movie’s predictions was either uninformed or willfully ignorant about the way the world already was by 2006. “People were talking about those things, just not in the mainstream!” he says. He was reading about refugees, know-nothing reactionaries, and eerie disruptions in biological processes during the early ’00s. If Children of Men can be said to have a message, Cuarón encapsulates it: “What’s really relevant now,” he tells me, “is to stop being complacent.”
At the New York Review of Books, American architecture critic Martin Filler casts a critical eye over a slew of new books on Brutalist architecture:
In addition to its echoes of art brut—Jean Dubuffet’s name for outsider art—New Brutalism was also an oblique riposte to New Humanism, a set of beliefs inspired by Geoffrey Scott’s hugely influential book ‘The Architecture of Humanism’ (1914). But Scott’s call for a return to Arts and Crafts design principles was scorned as escapist nostalgia by many young midcentury modernists. Among them was the period’s foremost British architecture critic, Reyner Banham, who with his scant empathy for the Arts and Crafts Movement’s focus on social reform issues belittlingly described New Humanism as “brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate)—picturesque detailing without picturesque planning. It was, in fact, the so-called ‘William Morris Revival,’ now happily defunct….”
Yet it was not a utopian nineteenth-century dreamland that Brutalism countered as much as the thin, commercialized version of the International Style that after World War II gained ascendance through economic expediency. Brutalism’s striking departure from the steel-skeleton-and-glass-skin conformity of this routine, profit-oriented modernism was defined by its contrary emphasis on raw concrete (‘béton brut’ in French) in massive forms of imposing scale, idiosyncratic shape, rough finish, and uncompromising forcefulness, with a building’s inner workings and services—structure, plumbing, electricity, heating, and ventilation—unabashedly exposed. Brutalism soon became a worldwide craze, as this comparatively economical means of fabrication offered a cost-effective alternative to hand-riveted metal construction and allowed a broader array of sculptural effects than those obtainable with rectilinear frameworks.
One gets the sense Filler is no fan of Brutalism — at least its bleak British incarnation — so there is, inevitably, a reference to J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise:
This was never a style that attempted to convey warmth, comfort, intimacy, or other qualities we tend to associate with an enjoyable way of life, and thus it never won much love except from architectural specialists. Brutalism posited an unsentimental, not to say harsh, view of the modern world, and however heroic its unflinching embodiment of hard realities may have been, most people do not enjoy a daily diet of architectural anxiety and alienation, especially in northern climates under cloudy skies.
One of the first signs of rejection came in J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel ‘High-Rise‘ (1975), which is set in a thinly fictionalized version of Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London’s North Kensington (1966–1972). (It is one of fifty-four sites highlighted in the ‘Brutalist London Map’, a useful guide to landmarks of the style in the British capital.) This thirty-one-story apartment block, commissioned by the Greater London Council, was based on Le Corbusier’s original Unité in Marseilles, although Goldfinger’s scheme is nearly twice as high as its prototype. Trellick Tower was well received by its first inhabitants, but as was also true of contemporaneous public housing projects in the United States, it quickly went to pot as funds for its upkeep and security were slashed, which resulted in a rapid descent into crime and squalor.
Neoconservative critics blamed the architecture, but as sociological studies have since proven, the claim that tall residential complexes breed social malaise is groundless. After Trellick Tower was privatized in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher got the British government out of the public housing business, the building’s owner-residents increased protection from intruders, paid for long-delayed repairs, and it is now a highly desirable property rightly appreciated for its design quality.
If anyone can point me to a review of these books by someone a little more sympathetic to Brutalism, I’d be much obliged.
When it comes to choosing the year’s best book covers, it seems that everyone is at it these days…
Against Everything by Mark Greif; design by Kelly Blair (Pantheon / 2016)
Private Novelist by Nell Zink; design by Sara Wood, art by Evgenia Loli (Ecco / 2016)
“These covers are challenging without being impenetrable and playful without being precious — none of which is an easy task for a designer. If good design might lure us into an experience that makes us smarter, then we’ve hit the jackpot when the book allows us to spend time within the head space of a stranger.”
I always look forward to Matt Dorfmann’s selections for the New York Times Book Review. Matt is the NYTBR‘s art director and a cover designer in his own right so he knows what he’s talking about, and his choices are always interesting. If I am honest, I think this is the list the designers (American designers at least) really pay attention to. And it’s worth noting that half of Matt’s choices this year were designed by women.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple; design by Kelly Blair; cover art by Geoff McFetridge (Little Brown & Co / October 2016)
I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman; design by Grace Han (Riverhead / August 2016)
Some of the most interesting and innovative book covers in the last few years have been designed as part of a series — designers and art directors seem to have more leeway with backlist titles (especially so if the author is no longer in the picture!) — and 2016 was no exception. Here are some of my favourite series designs from past year…
The Angelus Trilogy by John Steele; designed by Jason Booher (Blue Rider Press / 2016)
Inspector Littlejohn Mysteries by George Bellairs; design Stuart Bache (IPSO Books / 2016)
Hot on the heels of my annual covers post, here is my look back at the year’s young adult book covers. As in previous years, this list is a somewhat crowd-sourced affair, so I must thank all the designers and Twitter-folk who made suggestions and helped in various others ways. I’ve tried my best to credit the designs as fully as possible, but please let me know if there are any errors or omissions.
Aluta by Adwoa Badoe; design Michael Solomon; cover art Shonagh Rae (Groundwood / September 2016)
It is that wonderful/awful time of year. Wonderful because we get to look back at some of the amazing work people have done over the past 12 months. Awful because lists are arbitrary and someone always misses out.
I’m not going to say these are the ‘best’ covers of year. I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t feel qualified to make that kind of judgement. This post is more an attempt to reflect the year in covers as I saw it — the covers I liked; the covers I thought were well done; the covers I thought were interesting; the covers that I thought were a bit different.
Like last year, I’ve clustered my selections around designers. Not only does this allow me to post more covers, it means I can show a greater diversity of work.
I am truly sorry to all the hardworking and talented designers (and art directors) whose work I have overlooked this year. I do my best. It is not enough. Bring on 2017.
Rauschenberg started visiting in 1962, before moving to Captiva nine years later, describing it as “the foundation of my life and my work… the source and reserve of my energies”. His work by then had become ambitious and complicated; Captiva forced a return to simplicity, and the first things he produced were a selection of wall sculptures made from battered cardboard boxes.
For the world beyond Captiva’s white sands, however, a reacquaintance with Robert Rauschenberg is long overdue. In Britain, there has been no major retrospective of his work since 1981, while the last big US survey, at the Guggenheim in New York, took place in 1997. That will change next month, when Tate Modern opens a London retrospective; it will then move to Moma in New York next May, and after that to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Rauschenberg left a bold and indelible mark on the 20th century. His combines, which integrated the flotsam and trash of everyday life, including the artist’s own duvet in Bed (1955), were neither painting nor sculpture, and proved that anything could be the material of art. At Tate Modern, pride of place will be given to Monogram 1955–59, a horizontal canvas on which perches a stuffed goat with a tyre around its midriff; the work thrilled and scandalised when it was first shown at Castelli’s gallery in New York, and rapidly became synonymous with the artist’s iconoclasm. Since then, his relevance has only increased, says Leah Dickerman, co-curator of the new retrospective: “When you open a gallery and see the art that’s made out of the stuff of the real world, that’s coming off the walls, that’s interdisciplinary in its approach, all that is the legacy of Rauschenberg.”
Making the combines, Rauschenberg felt he was cracking “the secret language of junk”. They could be composed of anything: a goat corseted by a tire; a stuffed bald eagle. One of the very first, Untitled (Man with White Shoes), contained – deep breath – fabric, newspaper, a photograph of Jasper Johns, a handwritten letter from Rauschenberg’s son, a drawing by Twombly, glass, mirror, tin, cork, a pair of the artist’s socks and painted leather shoes, dried grass and a taxidermied Plymouth Rock hen.
All the same, there’s a limit to how much world you can cram into a sculpture, and as Rauschenberg’s success grew he became increasingly fascinated by replication. Back in 1952, he’d experimented with transfer drawing, and in 1958 he embarked on a grand project of illustrating Dante’s Inferno using lighter fluid to transfer images on to paper. In 1962, Andy Warhol introduced him to a far more sophisticated technique: the wizardry of using photographic images on silkscreen canvases.
Now he could reuse and resize his own photos and those he snipped from newspapers and magazines, giving him an unprecedented power of composition. Anything could be incorporated: John F Kennedy; a water tower; Bonnie and Clyde. As he gleefully observed of the silkscreen paintings: “It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street.” He was giddy for them, until in 1964 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Terrified of stasis, the next day he called his New York studio and asked his assistant to burn all the screens.