Holiday Arts Guide: Book Picks
Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
By David Henry and Joe Henry
November 5, Algonquin, 400 pp., $25.95
"We didn't set out to write the definitive cradle-to-grave biography of Richard Pryor," say the Henry Brothers, "We chose to go exploring, mine the soil out of which he grew . . ." Despite the Cultural Studies disclaimer, the authors — brothers, one a screenwriter, the other a musician — have fashioned Pryor's unruly tale into a coherent narrative with a lot of respect to the context. They investigate the story that Pryor's grandfather got crushed between railroad cars in 1925, and they interview natives of Pryor's unlikely hometown — Peoria, Illinois, for God's sake — demonstrating along the way how inappropriate a simplistic documentarian approach would be for such a contradictory, profane-yet-profound figure. Or let's say curious fool.
The Best of McSweeney's
Edited by Dave Eggers and Jordan Bass
November 12McSweeney's, 624 pp., $24
Already two volumes called The Better of McSweeney's have come and gone, so it appears that Eggers et al. have either dynamited the modesty wall or jimmied open the safe deposit box to give us what we've anticipated for eight years — The Best. This volume, which, unlike The Better, covers all 45 issues, trots out the big name writers snagged by the Sultans of Lit before their stock went through the roof, they flamed out, or both: David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Lydia Davis, John Hodgman. But the umbrella has room for names you haven't heard as well: Gunnhild Øyehaug, anyone? Plus there are the goodies one expects from this crew: The hardcover jacket folds out into a poster, while the deluxe box set includes a transmutable Robert Coover story on note cards and a catalog of clothing made for at least two people to wear at once.
Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene
By Gerard H. Gaskin
Duke University Press, 120 pp., $36
YASSSSSS, KWEEN, YASSSSSS!! Paris is Burning mighta been a revelation to some, but to those who live Up in Drags Realness, it wasn't even a very inneresting day. Gurrrl, that movie wadn't the history nor the future — much tulle, crepe, glitter, and (if Legendary's cover star is any indication) cellophane has spilled into many a Marcus Garvey Housing Project Community Center of an evening (and a morning) before and since, only to get kicked up into a shitstorm by some Fem Kweenz vogue-battling harder than NYPD helicopters. And Lordt have messy! — shutterbug Gerard H. Gaskin has kaptured all tha slapdash glamor and low-budget glory of a scene that better be THRIVING even without no sleep! #tensacrosstheboard #itsprosedragbitch #villagevoicebitingshehashaditstyle #photographicrealnesswithFACE #coughingupglitter #coffeetablebooksformotherfuckerswhocantaffordacoffeetable
By Yoko Ono November 19
Algonquin, 216 pp., $18.95
There's no stopping Yoko. It's been 43 years since her conceptual classic Grapefruit gave voice to the dreamy progressive aspirations of the 1960s and '70s, but its ostensible sequel, Acorn, picks up where the earlier book left off as if only a week had passed. As you might expect from late-period Ono, the new production values wax slicker than the original, and there's a stronger emphasis on environmental issues — "The earth is like your mate/You have abused and ignored. Ask to be forgiven," begins "Earth Piece IX." The interspersion of her sexy "dot drawings" after every few pieces enables the kind of contemplation they demand. And as airy-fairy as she sometimes seems on the surface, those fairies frequently deliver a side of New York sarcasm: "Swim as far away as you can in your dream . . . See if you drown or survive."
Twelve Years a Slave
By Solomon Northup
Atria/37 Ink, 320 pp., $15
Just as Solomon Northup himself was [spoiler alert!] rescued by the white folks of his erstwhile upstate New York community, so was his narrative saved cinematically by Brad Pitt (though available to Hollywood since 1853, before the film industry existed). And verily did the story thus become an Oscar shoo-in thanks to some black people who mostly came from Britain or Nigeria (read: model minorities). Nevertheless, the upshot is that more people will read Northup's slave narrative in handsome editions like this one, with an introduction by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench. Perhaps they'll find themselves investigating further: Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, more problematic biographies like Olaudah Equiano's, or even Nat Turner's, perhaps in Yuval Taylor's two-volume I Was Born a Slave, whose title practically one-ups Northup's. Who was a model minority himself, let's note.
Autobiography of a Corpse
By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
New York Review Books Classics, 256 pp., $15.95
Now considered a kind of Russian Borges, Krzhizhanovsky wrote his surrealistic tales mainly in the '20s and '30s, but they remained suppressed well beyond his death in 1950, and nearly until the 1990s. Despite his growing stature, Krzhizhanovsky's work has only recently been translated into English and published here, so far in three NYRB volumes, of which this is the third. His sensibility feels classically urbane, perfect for modern New York: In one story, a new tenant becomes obsessed with the previous renter of his apartment; there's also a riff on Gogol's "The Nose" in which a pianist's fingers run away from him.
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